In the early 2000s, scientists taking samples in open water looking for tiny organisms instead stumbled on something man-made – microplastics.
Those are 5 millimeters or smaller -- think the size of a pencil eraser.
Once people realized that microplastics were out there in the environment, alarms started going off. Because if marine animals ingest plastics and humans eat seafood, then, well, you get the idea.
Today, as much as 8 billion tons of plastics are ending up in our oceans each year. Researchers provide a visual for that amount of trash: Imagine stacking five kitchen garage bags on every foot of shoreline across 192 countries.
How does so much plastic make it into the environment?
For starters, people litter. And trash naturally degrades over time, getting washed along into streams and rivers when it rains.
Many types of clothing are made with synthetic materials, like polyester and nylon, that break down with each wash. Wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove such tiny fibers.
The stuffing in pillows and toys are full of “nurdles,” which are raw resin pellets melted down by manufacturers.
So what can you do about a worldwide problem?
Here are things that environmentalists suggest:
Support restaurants that use silverware and glass instead of plastic and straws and bring your own leftover containers when you eat out.
When purchasing clothes or linens, buy 100 percent cotton and avoid items wrapped in plastic.