This Day In History: May 7

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On May 7, 2004, marine biologist Richard Thompson publishes an article in the journal Science detailing the troubling amount of microscopic plastic fragments and fibers that he and his team have discovered in the world’s oceans and marine habitats. Thompson dubs the debris “microplastics” and questions whether these particles could release harmful chemicals and pose a danger to the environment.  

Thompson’s paper, “Lost at Sea: Where Is All the Plastic?,” sparked a surge of interest in both scientific and public policy circles. He and other researchers have since sought to discover just how widespread microplastics are—and how harmful.

The tiny particles of plastic, which are less than 5 millimeters in size, have been discovered in everything from Arctic Sea ice to the depths of the Pacific Ocean. They have also been found in humans and a wide range of marine life and other animals. Exposure to these tiny pollutants is believed to cause respiratory and heart issues and prove toxic to other major organs and systems in humans.

The chemicals that make plastic versatile and durable are also what makes it nearly impossible to get rid of.

“We’ve only been mass producing plastic for around 60 years and the likelihood is that all of the conventional plastics we’ve ever made are still with us on the planet, unless they’ve been incinerated,” Thompson said in an interview. He and his team at the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth have shown that a single plastic bag left on a beach can degrade into more than 1.75 million fragments.

Global recycling efforts have ramped up, but it has not been enough to offset the world’s growing addiction to everything from disposable diapers to plastic shampoo containers. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international forum that seeks solutions to global issues, estimates that nearly 460 million metric tons of plastic were produced in 2019 and projects that number to almost triple by 2060.

Since his paper was published, Thompson has become an outspoken advocate for curbing the use of plastics. His research and advisory work have influenced several international government policies, including the taxation of plastic shopping bags and bans on the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetics.