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  • Lauren Kim

Microplastics: a Macro-Problem


"Plastic Trees" by romanakamagician is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0



Introduction

Since its first invention in 1907, plastic has become such a common, indispensable material to modern society, and the world’s rate of plastic use currently increases with every single year that passes. Statistically, the world produces over 300 million tons of plastic every year and, to focus on plastic bags specifically, uses 500 billion single-use bags annually [1]. These are huge quantities, which sadly don’t even sufficiently depict the severity of the plastic epidemic yet because the numbers alone fail to demonstrate how long these plastics last. To further accentuate the gravity of the situation, consider that plastic bags take 10-20 years to decompose, plastic water bottles take 450 years to decompose, and other plastic items can take up to 1,000 years to fully break down [2]. The average working life of a single-use plastic bag is only 15 minutes, but after it is thrown away it persists in our environment for so much more time. The current prevalence of plastic is a looming threat to the well-being of our planet, and microplastics are a particular subcategory of plastic pollution that especially threatens our marine ecosystems. In this article, our focus will be on how microplastics degrade aquatic life and how we can do our part to prevent the generation/spread of new microplastics.


What are Microplastics?

We consider any piece of plastic that is below 5 millimeters in diameter a microplastic [3]. Microplastics are the product of plastic bags, straws, water bottles, and other plastics breaking down into sediments over time. It may be surprising to hear that such tiny, sometimes even microscopic, particles pose a serious threat to our ecosystems, but the truth is that microplastic pollution is actually a significant problem.


Microplastics: Not Micro At All

If our society consumes so much plastic and then throws a huge percentage of it away after only a few uses, then where does this massive heap of almost-imperishable waste go? Sadly, the answer is: our oceans, where marine wildlife can consume toxic bits of plastic that endanger them and possibly even us (through biomagnification, which will be explained later in this article). Recent statistics show that about eight million pieces of plastic debris reach our marine environments everyday, and experts believe that there are currently 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic polluting our oceans [1]!


When we’re talking about the “ocean”, we are not just referring to its surface. Although most microplastics float on the surface of our oceans with their light weight, varying densities of these polluting particles cause some microplastics to sink deeper into ocean waters. This makes it easier for marine animals to consume these microplastics from both the surface and the subsurface. Unfortunately, this is reflected in concrete numbers: plastic pollution affects 100% of sea turtles, 59% of whales, 40% of seabird species, and 35% of seals [1]. Whether it is due to being fatally entangled with larger plastic fibers or due to the excessive consumption of microplastics, an estimated 1 million seabirds and 100,000 other marine animals die every year as a direct result of plastic pollution [1]. This huge loss of life, if further sustained, can devastate previously-controlled food webs and break the natural harmony of entire marine ecosystems. Microplastics are even taking a toll on our terrestrial life, as indicated by a 2018 study in Florida that extracted 1,197 microplastics from only 63 dead birds of prey, many of which came from terrestrial environments. If microplastics are doing so much damage to our wildlife, how can they also negatively affect humans?



How are WE Affected?

We have more encounters with microplastics than we think, and the most common route of our microplastic intake is through consumption, either direct or indirect:

  • Direct Consumption of Microplastics: Surprisingly, humans possibly consume 39,000-52,000 microplastics through their diets each year! Some common food sources of microplastics are seafood, salt, sugar, honey, and alcohol [5]. The main problem of microplastics entering our bodies is not the physical space that they take up in our bodies, but rather the toxic chemicals that they emit over time that poses the most serious health risk. Plastics contain thousands of chemicals, many of which contribute to various cancers, reduced fertility, and problems with the development of reproductive organs [6].


  • Indirect Consumption of Microplastics: We already know that marine animals, fishes for example, are susceptible to eating microplastics. But what if we eat a fish that has microplastics inside of it? Does the plastic pollution within that fish transfer over to us? Unfortunately, the answer is not exactly: the concentration of toxins actually builds up even more within us, so we end up with a higher toxin concentration than the fish did. This is a natural phenomenon called biomagnification; as a toxic chemical such as those released by plastics travels up through trophic levels of a food chain, the toxin accumulates in organisms’ tissues at higher and higher concentrations. So even if we don’t directly consume microplastics through things like salt or sugar, indirectly consuming them through other plastic-filled organisms are just as, if not more, dangerous.


How can WE bring CHANGE? : WE CHANGE!

Although many people faithfully adhere to the "reduce, reuse, recycle" triangle and also try their best not to litter, it can still be very difficult to catch our releases of microplastics. These tiny particles are tough test subjects to work with, and so many scientists are unable to conduct effective research on this topic. There is still currently no solution for getting rid of microplastics, and information about microplastics in general is very scarce compared to resources on other environmental topics. However, with the information that we do have, let’s try our best to help eliminate microplastic emissions by taking these following steps of action:

  • REduce, REuse, REcycle: If possible, try to find products that are made of stainless steel, glass, platinum silicone, or bamboo rather than plastic: you will have long-lasting, durable products that promote multiple uses and generate less waste! Try to reuse everything that you have, and to always buy reusable alternatives to single-use products if available. Also, take special care to throw recyclables in the recycle bin rather than the trash can, where they will be taken straight to landfills without any chance of being restored into usable condition. REuse, REcycle, REduce, REPEAT!


  • Hygiene and Beauty without Beads: Many beauty and hygiene products such as toothpaste and face wash contain a form of microplastics called microbeads. Microbeads are small, manufactured balls of plastic particles that serve to clean and massage our skin. After we rinse or remove microbead-containing products, microbeads can easily pass through water filters and persist in our wastewater, eventually ending up in the ocean. Most microbeads are made of the chemical compounds polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polymethyl methacrylate, polylactic acid, or nylon [8]. Start checking the ingredient labels of skin care products when you’re shopping for your next bottle of facial cleanser and make sure to avoid products that contain any of the listed chemical compounds above. Fortunately, microbeads were banned under Obama’s presidency with the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, but it still never hurts to check the labels! Actually, the best-case scenario would be to find organic products because producing organic products does not involve any harsh chemicals in the first place! Here is a huge list of organic products you can be on the lookout for on your next shopping spree, all at or under $30!


  • Packing Water, Buying Paper/Metal Straws, and Using Eco-Friendly bags: Buying plastic water bottles may be a convenient go-to for many people, but let’s preserve our marine ecosystem by storing beverages in reusable bottles. Metal and paper straws can help to reduce the widespread use of plastic straws, which are a huge potential source of microplastics. Eco-Friendly trash bags are compostable, and using reusable bags/paper bags for grocery shopping can reduce the use of single-use plastic bags. Let’s go green!


Thank you for reading “Microplastics: a Macro-Problem”. I hope that this article sparked your interest to go green or at least inspired you to pay more attention to how we are affecting our Earth! Stay safe during these times.

Note: Bracketed numbers next to certain texts (e.g. [1], [2], etc.) indicate that the aforementioned information in the article is derived from the corresponding source in the References below.


References

[1] Vuleta, B. (2020, January 31). 55 Disturbing Plastic Waste Statistics [2020 Update]. https://seedscientific.com/plastic-waste-statistics/.

[2] The lifecycle of plastics. WWF. (2018, June 19). https://www.wwf.org.au/news/blogs/the-lifecycle-of-plastics.

[3] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (2016, April 13). What are microplastics? NOAA's National Ocean Service. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/microplastics.html.

[4] Carlin, J., Craig, C., Little, S., Donnelly, M., Fox, D., Zhai, L., & Walters, L. (2020). Microplastic accumulation in the gastrointestinal tracts in birds of prey in central Florida, USA. Environmental pollution (Barking, Essex : 1987), 264, 114633. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2020.114633

[5] Gibbens, S. (2019, June 5). You eat thousands of bits of plastic every year. The average person eats thousands of plastic particles every year, study finds. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/06/you-eat-thousands-of-bits-of-plastic-every-year/.

[6] Loria, K. Most Plastic Products Contain Potentially Toxic Chemicals, Study Reveals. Consumer Reports. https://www.consumerreports.org/toxic-chemicals-substances/most-plastic-products-contain-potentially-toxic-chemicals/.

[7] Desai, K. Role of Microplastics in the Biomagnification of PBTs in Marine Organisms. NSUWorks. https://nsuworks.nova.edu/cnso_stucap/62/.

[8] Drahl, C. (2016, January 9). What You Need To Know About Microbeads, The Banned Bath Product Ingredients. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/carmendrahl/2016/01/09/what-you-need-to-know-about-microbeads-the-banned-bath-product-ingredients/.

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