On a human scale, something that measures 5 millimeters (about a fifth of an inch) probably doesn’t register as large enough to be worthy of much attention. And given that perception, it can be hard to imagine that something so small could make much of an impact on a person, much less a planet.

Yet conservationists and scientists, like Dr. Andreas Fath, are growing increasingly concerned by the mounting ecological pandemic posed by microplastics. Collectively, these plastic fragments or micro-manufactured plastic objects — all of them five millimeters or smaller — are finding their way into streams, rivers and oceans on such an enormous scale that, small as they are, they are affecting life all over the planet.

A collection of plastic waste accumulates in a sheltered dock along the Tennessee River. Through wave action and erosion, larger plastic objects can erode into microplastic pieces that are small enough to escape water treatment and to contaminate the entire aquatic food chain. (Credit: Casey Phillips/Tennessee Aquarium)

There are many roads to the creation of microplastics. Some begin as a larger object, such as a drinking straw, which breaks down into smaller pieces through the steady eroding action of wind and waves. Or it can be in the form of already-small items, such as microbeads, an almost invisibly tiny ingredient found in thousands of personal care products. Because of their dimensions, these beads pass through water filtration directly into streams, rivers and, eventually, the ocean.

However it arrives in the water, microplastic inevitably end up being consumed by organisms at the lowest levels of the food chain. Eventually, then, it finds its way into humans through contaminated seafood.

Globally, 8.8 million tons (17.6 billion pounds) of microplastic enters the ocean each year, about a dump truck’s worth every single minute, nonstop. In the U.S., each person generates an average of 200 pounds of plastic waste per year. By 2025, the rate of plastic pollution is expected to double.

Participants in the 2012 River Rescue clean up collect plastic debris floating in the Tennessee River. Microplastic debris can begin life as larger objects like this or can arrive in the river in already-smaller form as microplastic beads used in thousands of consumer products. (Credit: Tennessee Aquarium)

Microplastics may be small, but they represent a big, BIG problem.

As part of the TenneSwim project, Dr. Fath will be generating water quality data that will help Southeasterns to recognize and begin counteracting the issue of microplastic pollution in the Tennessee River. He and his team will be conducting daily analyses along the entire 652-mile course of the waterway. Among the many tests he is performing is a measurement of the quantity of microplastics at each location.

Dr. Andreas Fath shows off the equipment with which he filters out microplastics from the water as he swims. Using this technique, which he pioneered, Dr. Fath will be able to estimate the microplastic-load in the waterway at the conclusion of TenneSwim. (Credit: Casey Phillips/Tennessee Aquarium)

What he finds may be a shocking eye-opener. Based on the results of similar tests he conducted during his swim of the Rhine River in 2014, Dr. Fath estimated that the surface waters alone of the German river carry eight tons of plastic into the North Sea. Accounting for what was flowing below the surface, that number could be even higher.

“Literally, this is only the tip of the iceberg,” Fath says. “Actual microplastics pollution in the Rhine is most likely many times higher.”

Considering the Tennessee River has never been as comprehensively tested as it will be through TenneSwim, many conservationists are waiting with bated breath to discover how macro this micro problem really is.

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