Microplastics, an Overview
If you’re involved in anything sustainability, you’re already most likely taking measures to reduce your plastic consumption. Big or small, any step to reduce your plastic consumption is a win for the environment given how long it takes plastic to degrade and just how much we use. But what about microplastics, and how are they particularly deadly? This article will explore what microplastics are, why they are so bad for the environment, and what can be done about them.
A Microplastic is any plastic particle that is less than 5 millimeters across, and can of course be significantly smaller than that. Many microplastics are even in the nanometer size. The idea is that instead of biodegrading, plastic products simply break apart into smaller and smaller plastic pieces. This does not break down the chemical nature of the plastic, so it is still just as indigestible as the larger chunk. Two forms of microplastics that have made the news are Microbeads, which are tiny beads purposefully out into cosmetics and toothpastes, and Microfibers, which are fibres shed from synthetic clothes when they go through the wash.
Why are they bad?
Currently the most noticeable health issue caused by microplastics happens because they are “sticky.” Microplastics tend to attract heavy metals and other pollutants to them, and so when an animal eats the microplastic they get the pollutants with them. Furthermore, because they are so hard to digest, animals that eat the animals that eat the microplastic will also get the plastic and the attached pollutant to them, and so microplastics can rapidly move up the food chain.
Other than that, microplastics are still a huge mystery. We know that they can clog up the internal organs of animals when in a large enough concentration. We know they can irritate organs by rubbing up against them repeatedly, causing inflation, and we know from controlled studies of fish as well as reports from people who work around plastic constantly that in high enough concentrations microplastics can cause reproductive difficulties, cancer, and other very awful conditions. But we are only at the very very beginning of studying microplastics. Very few tests have been done and very little research has been conducted. We need to conduct a lot more studies on plastic pollution in order to understand the potential health hazards of these plastics.
Where are microplastics found?
That’s the scary part, they are everywhere. The most stories and news about microplastics are the ones that make it to the ocean, and there are a lot of microplastics in the ocean. We have found microplastics not only in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch but all over the ocean, including the Marian Trench and other deep areas. But that’s not all, they are apparently airborne now, with a recent study finding microplastics have been raining down on us too. And once it gets into the food supply it gets worse from there. We have found microplastics in digestive tracts, lodged in lungs, endocrine systems, and even in the bloodstreams of some animals. And if all this sounds too distant to you, know that we’ve found microplastics in human food too. According to Scientific America, microplastics have been “found in packaged sea salt, beer, bottled water and tap water, making it virtually certain we are ingesting microplastics.” So while the science on the health effects of eating microplastics is still largely unknown, the sheer amount of microplastics mean we better know quick, because they’re everywhere now.
What Can I Do?
If you’re worried about your health, step one is to not eat out of plastic containers. One of the biggest ways people ingest microplastics is through plastic food and drink containers, with one study finding that people who meet their daily water intake through plastic bottles drink upwards of 90,000 microplastic particles, as opposed to 4,000 for the tap water drinkers. Styrofoam, plastic take out containers, disposable coffee cups, and other plastics also have potential for microplastics. Again, we don’t really know if the amounts are dangerous for humans, but if you don’t want to take chances, cutting plastic is already good for the environment of course.
Speaking of the environment, if you want to get rid of plastics in the environment overall, one of the best ways to do this is by cutting plastic bags. According to Scientific America, Polyethylene is the most common plastic type making up microplastics found in the oceans, which is the plastic used in bags and other containers. And yes, this means plastic bag microplastics beat plastic fishing gear for sheer amount of microplastics, which shows just how widespread the microplastic problem is. With other microplastics, thankfully microbeads in cosmetics are mostly banned already, but in general avoid products with little beads or sparkles in them. As for microfibres, avoid wearing synthetic fast fashion when possible and if it isn’t, use microplastic catchers such as Coraball and Guppyfriend.
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