The Giant Issue of Microplastics
First, we will have a look at the background story on micro-plastics, and then we will go into detail on how the situation regarding micro-plastics in our environment impacts us today.
What are micro-plastics?
A micro-plastic is any piece of plastic smaller than 5mm in diameter. Before we address micro-plastics we have to have a closer look at plastics in general.
Just before World War I, we invented the first pure synthetic plastic. However, during the Second World War people started using this versatile substance instead of natural resources. This prompted the widespread manufacturing of this non-degradable product.
It is estimated that around 8300 million metric tons (Mt) of virgin plastic has been generated to date.
In a study done by the American Association for the Advancement of Science it revealed that as of 2015, approximately 63000 Mt of plastic has been generated by the population. It also indicates that 9% of plastic waste has been recycled, 12% incinerated and 79% ended up in landfills or the natural environment. Plastic use is globally accelerating, and this should be a major concern to everyone on the planet.
“If current consumption rates continue, the planet will hold another 33 billion tonnes of plastic by 2050. This would fill 2.75 billion refuse-collection [garbage] trucks, which would wrap around the planet roughly 800 times if placed end to end.”
So where do micro-plastics come from?
Here, we will look at two primary sources.
Firstly, they are used in consumer products. These micro-plastics are created purposefully by companies as part of a product offering or the production process. For example, micro-beads are found in products like facial scrubs or toothpaste, where the micro-beads are embedded in the product. After you use the product the micro-beads will make its way down your sink and then eventually end up in the sea. It was only until recently that people have been made aware of the micro-bead process. In 2015 Ex-President of The United States of America, Barrack Obama signed a bill that prohibits the selling and distribution of products containing micro-beads.
A group of NGO’s is trying to convince the EU to ban micro-beads within the 28 country block. However, it’s not just the beauty products that will come under the hammer; most of our clothing is made of synthetic products as well. The small plastic fibres of a standard polyester T-shirt can lose up to 1gram of fibers on one washing cycle.
A plastic bottle does not retain its form or shape. Over time, with forces, such as wind, UV radiation in the form of sunlight, or abrasion in water, the plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming microplastics. The life cycle of micro-plastics are still uncertain but most scientific experts estimate it to be between 450 years and forever.
The reason for the long life span is because plastic is a relatively new product in the environment. This means that bacteria have not developed enough to break down the molecular structure of plastic.
Globally, we only recycle about 9% of the plastics we produce. If we measure this in plastic bottles then out of every 10 plastic bottles potentially 9 can end up back in our environment.
Some countries are better than others at managing all the plastic waste being produced. Through correct waste management systems or ideally recycling this problem can be rectified. It is possible to prevent most of the plastic from entering the natural environment.
The issue is compounded when we look at the rapid economic development happening in many areas of the world, mainly Asia. Jenna Jambeck collected the most comprehensive data of world plastic pollution to date.
Even with her more conservative estimates of plastic waste entering the ocean, by weight, it accumulates to 750 barbie dolls every second. In other words, every time a human baby is born, 160 plastic barbies are chucked into the ocean at the same time; quite a legacy for our children.
Our ancestors realized that water was a great way to transport people and goods. Well, that principle applies to the natural environment as well. What people are finding scary is the fact that wherever they turn these micro-plastics cohabitate the earth with us. The alarming element is that water is our basic human right and we are contaminating it deliberately.
Most of us live close to water, and these are often the same sources that we get our drinking water from. The World Health Organization has launched a review of the bottled water product; based on the fact that micro-plastics in bottled water can be double that of tap water. So, bottled water isn’t the safer choice, but, wait, tap water also has contaminants in it. It doesn’t seem like we have much of a choice either way.
Even though in developed nations we treat our wastewater, we are not always able to remove micro-plastics. Although the study concluded the concentrations were minimal, they found the presence of said micro-plastics.
This ‘leaking’ of micro-plastics does two significant things: first, we use wastewater in many cases to fertilize and water our fields. We are spreading the micro-plastics onto dry land. It does not require much imagination to assume that when it rains, they are being washed further afield. Second, if not being spread into our agricultural system, the micro-plastics are being released through our wastewater into our rivers, lakes, and the ocean.
Where we find water, we find life.
The impact of micro-plastics has been studied in a variety of shellfish (bottom-feeding creatures like mussels and oysters). These bottom feeders are the current poster children of research because they are the oceans garburator’s, they draw in large amounts of water to eat algae or any small or left-over particles of food. Therefore, they are very exposed to micro-plastics. The exposure has been found to impact their reproductive systems even affecting their offspring. Eating these micro-plastics also leads to their offspring ‘growing up’ to be smaller and less robust.
The average European shellfish consumer is exposed to 11,000 particles of micro-plastics yearly. Now we are looking at a situation where the microplastics are entering our food system. The scale of which includes both wild and farmed shellfish. For example, recently Korea found that 100 grams of clam contained 34 micro-plastics. You can, of course, avoid eating shellfish; however, a study in China also found microplastics in table salt.
We know we are spreading these microplastics through the natural environment. We know that they are impacting sea creatures. We know that we are consuming them through our food and water.
But what does this mean for human health?
The jury is still deliberating on what the impacts may be for our health. That said there are a few things we do know. Micro-plastics due to their properties of being irregularly shaped with a rough surface area can facilitate a process called ‘leeching.’ This, in short, means they can be little carriers of other, potentially harmful chemicals or bacteria. The reason our cups and plates are produced with a smooth surface is to completely clean and sanitize them between meals.
Even if we ignore that we don’t yet know the risk of the micro-plastics to our health, we also have no way of knowing where those little plastics have been, or what other chemicals or unsafe bacteria’s they have picked up along the way. This year, a study from the coastal regions of Vancouver, Canada, found micro-plastics transporting dangerous metals like lead and cadmium, which are known to be toxic to humans at certain levels.
This opens up another can of worms, as the question becomes: at what point does this potential cocktail of pollutants of heavy metals, bacteria or the plastics themselves becomes hazardous to human health?
Researchers call this bioaccumulation, in layman’s terms: ‘a ticking time bomb’.
Old stories are being brought forward, in 1962 Rachel Carson, a revolutionary marine biologist of her day, released her book ‘a silent spring’ where she wrote:
“If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals–eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones–we had better know something about their nature and their power.”
The World Health Organization has a section on pesticides and chemical safety, listing the top 10 major health concerns, and we have already explored three of them.
Is there evidence of micro-plastics impacting human health?
As of yet, this answer appears to be anyone’s guess.
What if we make a connection between the animal kingdom and human health?
Of course, there are fundamental differences between sea creatures like clams and that of humans; however, we are all part of the inhabitants of the planet and we will have to think outside of the box to combat this problem.
This line of thought raises more questions than answers
We do know that, currently, research is being conducted in numerous locations globally on the potential impact on human health.
First off, a large study in Indonesia is attempting to answer the question if it is possible to determine an intern recommendation for maximum consumption of micro-plastics.
This study already accepts that we are consuming microplastics through our food, water, and through the air. Our stomachs can absorb chemicals that are released by the micro-plastics and transport them into our blood.
However, what about an actual piece of micro-plastic?
There is considerably more research on microplastics on marine life than on humans. Remember the mussels on a plastic diet? More recent findings have also suggested that micro-plastics are able to impact the mussels at a cellular level. Results have reported that there is an inflammation response.
Further, the researchers were not aware of this inflammation is caused by toxic chemicals, or by the micro-plastic itself. They can have an irregular shape; this shape can be prickly within the body, potentially causing the inflammation. They have also found microplastics in the organs of Crabs.
A recent study from 2017 found that micro-plastics were found not only in organs like gills of dried fish but also in their flesh.
These findings suggest that it is possible in some marine species that the micro-plastics can pass from the digestive system into the blood and consequently throughout the rest of the creature’s body.
Now we approach the frontier of current research, what we do and do not know. That said we have been conducting experiments for quite some time on lab mice. These experiments are a barometer of what the potential impacts could be on human health. A recent study found that microplastics were found to hurt lab mice.
There are 6 things we know for certain about micro-plastics.
In our soil
We start on dry land. Back in 2012 a study from Berlin suggested that micro-plastic pollution could be more than an ocean issue. Since that suggestion, multiple studies have found micro-plastics in our soils.
Our cities are a logical place to start. The findings from a large study in Paris were not only the first investigation of the urban environment, but the results of the study were much more impactful than one might have thought; the micro-plastics are found to be cycling through the entire urban environment.
The plastics were found in the tap water, wastewater, urban soil, air, in short, everywhere. It’s not new that our cities are microcosms of pollution, but the sheer magnitude of the micro-plastic contamination was unprecedented.
The issue gets complicated when we look at what we do collectively with our wastewater. The sludge created after water treatment is often used as a source of fertilization within the farming industry. A study found that fields treated in this manner had higher concentrations of micro-plastics than ones that were not.
Furthermore, worms, the planets soil mixers, have been found to be transporting micro-plastics deeper into the soil. We are not just depositing an anthropogenic, or human-made, substance into the realm of the worms, while they go about their business; they are further spreading the micro-plastics deeper into the soil and further.
The previously mentioned study on micro-plastic concentration found in the fields pointed out that when we were not spreading them into our agricultural fields, we then dumped them into our rivers and lakes after water treatment.
Our fresh water
Mongolia, a large and underdeveloped country with a sparse population, seems furthest from our idea of a heavily plastic polluted region. However, a recent study found several things of interest. The study compares the amount of micro-plastic pollution found in the Mongolian lake Hovsgol compared to its much bigger North American cousin, Lake Superior.
The North American lake is considerably bigger both in surface area and total volume of water, and it also has about 30 million people living within its water basin. What they found is that micro-plastic concentration was higher in Lake Hovsgol.
The town Khatgal has a population of 2,800. The takeaway is not only that we are finding micro-plastics in extremely remote subalpine lakes, but it is a very clear example of how we deal with our plastic waste is of paramount importance of the levels of micro-plastics it occurs.
A biologist friend of mine always proclaimed “no one really cares about the rivers or lakes, why would they when the colors and strange creatures of the oceans waits.”
His frustrations are also evident in micro-plastics research. It was only in 2017 that the first comprehensive study was conducted on the fate of micro-plastics within river systems. They conclude that each rivers’ specific characteristics, for example, current strength, defines which micro-plastics can become ‘stuck’ within the river, and which will make its way into the ocean.
But, lakes are also large bodies of still water. As micro-plastic transport depends on the characteristics of the water system, lakes are micro-plastic ‘sinks’ or places for the plastic to build up. Concentrations of micro-plastics found in lakes are alarming.
Further, we often drink this water; the micro-plastics can be taken up into our drinking water, and the journey of that plastic starts all over again. The plastic is now in our urban environment again, all points mentioned in the above section are relevant again. Not quite what we meant with the word ‘recycle’.
What happens to the fish?
A French study found that 12% of Gobio Gobio’s (a small fish found throughout temperate Eurasia) had ingested micro-plastics. As expected from findings in the marine environment: the plastics are interacting with species living within freshwater locations.
“Globally, freshwater is a dwindling natural resource and is in a fragile state. Available supplies are subject to competing pressures and impacts such as pollution threaten freshwater’s uses and ecological quality.”
About 70% of the worlds freshwater are locked in ice. A group of researchers from Germany tested ice samples from the arctic and found micro-plastic concentrations several times denser than what was found in the most polluted water locations.
A piece of historical micro-plastic pollution has been locked away in the north. They state that as global warming continues this store of plastics will be released into the ocean.
Research within micro-plastics is definitely centered on the marine environment. The current most cited research paper is from 2011 by Anthony Andrady.
His paper, already back in 2011, makes several claims. He concludes that all plastics have the ability to become micro-plastics, which has now been recognized as the biggest potential source of micro-plastics into our environment.
In reference to ocean creatures, he claims:
“Filter feeders in the ocean ranging from the nano-zooplanktons to Balleen Whales, routinely interact with these without any apparent ill effect.”
If we remember that whales, like mussels or clams, ‘filter feed’ large quantities of water to eat particles, small fish, plankton, etc., their exposure is to micro-plastics is significant.
A recent Italian study found that the Baleen Whale, capable of gulping 70,000 liters of water, is certainly being exposed. They found that 56% of surface samples of plankton contained micro-plastics.
The Italian study does not yet know what impact the micro-plastics have on the whales, just that they are present.
But, the bigger issue becomes the chemical toxicity of the micro-plastics.
As the world does not yet know, this one is left up to you andyou’re your impact can change the environment for future generations.
A Study released in October 16th, 2018 conducted a meta-review of all research published up to 2017. They concentrated on reviewing 320 research papers to explore if micro-plastics and, specifically, micro-beads are bad for the environment.
The investigation is solid. But, just like this current conversation the, interpretation of the results has some wiggle room. The research was funded by the cosmetics industry.
Not taking a side, and in the paper’s defense, there are some significant issues brought to light. The current methods of detection are not standardized, leading to fractured results. Some research papers are contradicting others, leading to discord. The available research on freshwater and land organisms is almost non-present.
Further, about half of the studies are merely just testing the presence of the micro-plastics in different organisms and environments. That leads to the conclusion that there needs to be a focus on the risk of the micro-plastics, not simply saying ‘here they are, now be worried.’
The research is incomplete, but in 2010 ten papers contained the word ‘micro-plastics,’ and in 2017 there were 306. The world is scattering to investigate.
Richard Thompson, a professor of marine science and engineering at England’s Plymouth University suggested:
“From a human perspective,” he says, “at the moment I think there’s cause for concern rather than
In Indonesia, the largest ever study on micro-plastics within humans is being conducted. The goal is to make an intern, or temporary, guideline for maximum micro-plastic consumption.
We don’t need to be marine biologists or study human health to apply a bit of logic. The micro-plastics are there, appearing almost everywhere, and they are not supposed to be.