Microplastics: an inescapable truth
Microplastics: an inescapable truth.
— Kat Guerrero explores what microplastics are and how to handle this dire modern day problem with caution and curiosity.
✎ Kat Guerrero
There are approximately 100 billion stars in our galaxy...
Now, take that number and multiply it by 500. That’s how many pieces of microplastics there are in our ocean.
We’ve alluded that microplastics are a pretty big concern in our past pieces – from Boyan Slat’s The Great Ocean Clean Up to our comprehensive overview of plastic packaging, microplastics don’t shy away from the spotlight. It’s time to investigate and understand just what microplastics are and why we should navigate the world of microplastics with caution and curiosity.
A quick summary?
It’s estimated that 8 million tonnes of new plastic finds a home in the ocean on a yearly basis. By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.
Microplastics, tiny particles of plastic that end up in aquatic environments, are a key contributor to those scary statistics. Because they are minuscule in size, animals and humans can ingest them unknowingly. Since most plastic contains non-binding chemicals, if we’re exposed to microplastics, it’s highly likely that we’ll become exposed to BPA, dioxins and other endocrine disruptors. Studies show that microplastics are increasingly present in our food sources, the water we drink, human faeces, and even the air we breathe.
What are microplastics?
The short answer: microscopic pieces of plastic. Microplastics are defined by the NOAA as plastic particles between .33m and 5 mm. They can be eroded to 1 – 100nm particles. They either originate from larger plastics that can’t biodegrade or from microbeads, tiny pieces of plastic commonly used as exfoliating agents in health and beauty products.
Microplastics have been a by-product of plastic production since the boom of oil-based products post-World War II. It’s only in the past 20 years that researchers have dedicated time and funding to deeply understanding the breadth of microplastic pollution. Even in 2018, we don’t have a clear grasp of how serious microplastic pollution may be and the health effects that follow.
Where do they come from?
Plastic, of course. Approximately 75% of microplastics in the marine ecosystem originate from plastic broken down over time. The rest enter the ocean as microbeads, synthetic fabrics or plastic from car tyres.
Microplastics are categorised into primary and secondary microplastics. Primary microplastics are the plastics manufactured to be small. They’re roughly the size of peas and most recognised as microbeads. You’ll primarily find microbeads in health and beauty products as well as select medical supplies. Since microbeads are so small, they pass through filtration systems easily and enter rivers, lakes, and oceans undetected. Microbeads are typically made from polyethylene, a synthetic resin used for plastic bags and packaging. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, between 15 and 30% of microplastics are derived from primary microplastics.
Secondary microplastics are larger pieces of plastics (plastic bottles, garbage bags, and plastic containers) that break down over a long period of time through exposure to the elements. Secondary microplastics can enter the ocean through stormwater runoff, landfills, plastic litter, poor drainage networks, and wastewater treatment plants that don’t effectively capture all microplastics.
Then there are microplastics that are a result of anthropogenic use – think tires, washing machine, and synthetic clothing. A 2016 study reported that one washing machine cycle can release more than 700,000 microplastic fibres into the environment. Imagine how many microfibers are released on a yearly basis just from washing machines!
Clothing, particularly from synthetic fabrics, is a major contributor to microplastic pollution. Ecologist Mark Browner, of University College Dublin, revealed in a landmark study that 85% of microfibers tested originated from synthetic materials used for clothing. Those materials included polyester, nylon, and acrylic. Synthetic fabrics are popular in the fashion industry because they are cheap and easy to manufacture. Most synthetic fabrics contain petroleum-based fibres.
How do microplastics affect the ecosystem?
Since microplastics are minuscule in size, marine species are susceptible to ingesting the materials unknowingly. Studies show that microplastics can reduce growth, affect reproduction and shorten life spans. Animals are often found with incredible amounts of plastic in their stomachs and airways, which is telling of the amount of plastic floating in the sea. Microplastics tend to contain toxins, like BPA and flame retardants, which can affect the entire food chain. Dr. Jennifer Lavers, as reported in the Guardian, sums up environmental concerns with microplastic well:
“Everything that is tiny is at the base of the food web so it’s not an issue of just an albatross swallowing a cigarette lighter or a sperm whale swallowing big chunk of net, you now literally have microplastics being eaten by corals, sea cucumbers, clams and muscles, and zooplankton at the very base of the food web. You have all levels of the food web infiltrated with this stuff. It’s everywhere and where the plastic goes, the chemicals follow.” – Dr. Jennifer Lavers, The Guardian
It's not just the food web that’s of concern. Dr. Ling, of the University of Tasmania, believes that up to 70% of microplastics will eventually sink to the seafloor and embed into marine sediments. That means that the very base of the ocean will be largely composed of plastic. Already, microplastics have been found in sediment, such as in the Great Australian Bight. If microplastics are found in the base of a pristine and isolated marine ecosystem, we can only assume that similar environments contain the same, if not more microplastics.
How do microplastics affect our health?
Believe it or not, but research on how microplastics affect our health is relatively limited – the public is just now grasping how serious and widespread microplastics in the human body may be. What is understood, however, is that microplastics are unavoidable.
In addition to polluting the ocean, microplastics are found in our food (fish!), drinking water, human feces and even the air we breathe. Based on our knowledge of the chemicals found in plastics (not so sure? Study up on your plastic types), we can assume that the more microplastics we are exposed to, the more endocrine disrupting chemicals enter our system. A study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO), revealed that plastic nanoparticles can migrate through the intestinal wall via digestion. Another study from Lund University examined how microplastics interacted with fish brains. The result? That plastic particles were not only found inside their brains but were traced to behavioural disorders.
We’ll repeat that. There are microplastics now found in our drinking water and the air we breathe. In a study conducted by Orb Media, a journalism non-profit, 93% of 250 water bottles samples internationally contained traces of microplastics. Tiny pieces of airborne fibres have also been found in air and lungs. It’s likely that any plate of seafood, regardless of its origin, will contain microfibers. Scientists have traced microplastics in approximately 100 species – a number of which are consumed by humans.
At the Medical University of Vienna, Philip Schwabl, a gastroenterologist, has been busy studying the extent to which microplastics live in the human body. After examining the levels of microplastics in human faeces, all 8 of his subjects tested positive. The subjects were selected from a range of backgrounds, environments, and occupations – this may have been the first study of its kind but it’s telling that microplastics are likely found to some extent in all human bodies.
While these studies prove that microplastics are found in anthropogenic environments, there still is the unanswered question: Once microplastics enter the body, what effect do they have? Do they pass through with little to no harm? Are tiny fibres entering our bloodstream? Do pieces of microplastics stay in our body for long periods of time? Will microplastics affect our bodies the same way aquatic species are affected?
Do those chemicals attached to plastic particles leech? And to what extent?
What actions are in place to get rid and reduce the amount of microplastics?
As more research is conducted on the number of microplastics in the world, countries, non-profit organisations and academics are banding together to act. It’s an exciting time to follow the progress and research on microplastics. We’re still very much on the frontier of confronting the microplastics issue.
In 2015, the USA banned the use of microbeads with their ‘Microbead-Free Waters Act.’ Cosmetic and personal care products were required to phase out microbeads. Australia has yet to administer a similar official ban on microbeads. Instead, they’re hoping that manufacturers and stockists will voluntarily remove products. As of July 2017, 80% of 48 surveyed companies have adhered to the voluntary phase-out. If microplastics aren’t fully removed from products by July 2018, the government will follow in the US’s footsteps and implement an official ban.
Large organisations like the United Nations Environmental Programme, National Geographic and NOAA are taking individual steps to understand and eventually reducing the number of microplastics in our environment. NOAA has been officiating a Marine Debris Program over the last few years. The end goal is to collect samples, undergo testing and compare microplastics on an international level to find patterns.
How do we avoid microplastics?
Hate to break the news, but you can’t. However, you can be conscious of the materials you buy and use that contribute to the growing microplastic pollution. Some common contributors of microplastics include:
We find this infographic from Orb Media particularly helpful -
It’s unrealistic to stop using materials like tyres, but it’s important to be aware of how microplastics are created. Easy swaps, like buying natural clothing, using eco-friendly glitter, limiting smoking and bringing your own takeaway containers reduce microplastic pollution. It may seem like a small contribution, but if everyone took action, there would be an incredible impact.
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