For more than 50 years, worldwide plastic production has continued to rise. Over time, as plastic has increased in durability, it has gradually replaced materials like glass and metal in a number of industries. Globally, we produce an estimated 300 million tons of plastic every year, 78 percent of which is never reclaimed or recycled. Of that 78 percent, approximately 10–20 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans each year. A recent study performed by Worldwatch Institute, conservatively estimated that 268,940 tons of plastic are currently floating in the world’s oceans.
Microplastics are defined as plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters in diameter. These tiny particles accumulate in the sea, enter the food chain, and can be found in our tap water, in the air we breathe, and in a multitude of products that we consume on a daily basis.
Microplastics have become virtually inescapable for marine life and humans. Personal care products containing microplastics, such as toothpaste, represent one of the largest intentional uses of microplastics in our day to day lives. Does your exfoliating daily face or body wash contain “micro-beads”? For the most part, "micro-beads" is just another term for tiny pieces of plastic, which get flushed down your household wastewater stream upon use. As many of us know, humans also ingest microplastics via food. Microplastics have been detected not only in fish and seafood, but also in tap water, sea salt, and even beer.
There is plastic in your clothes too. Synthetic textiles release a considerable amount of plastic fibers into wastewater upon washing, accounting for around a third of ocean microplastics. A typical 13-pound washing load of acrylic-fabric items releases more than 700,000 individual microfibers. It is however, important to note that garments of a higher quality shed less in the wash than low-quality synthetic products. Additionally, researchers have found that jackets washed in top-loading machines lose five times more fibers than gentler, front loaders.
Personal care, food, and apparel products are far from the only sources of microplastics that are entering our oceans and our bodies. A variety of industries are contributing to this problem--things like fishing nets, bottle caps, product packaging, and plastics bags that break down in the ocean. Wastewater treatment plants filter some of these particles out (65–92 percent) but a significant volume of waste is still released into the environment.
Microplastics pose an especially large threat to filter feeders such as baleen whales and basking sharks. These species feed through filtering seawater for plankton. Some have evolved to swallow thousands of cubic meters of seawater a day, without any mechanism to digest or filter out plastics. Numerous studies have suggested that taking in microplastics can impair the ability of marine life to absorb nutrients, and may have toxic side-effects. Many species of whale and filter-feeding shark are already under threat from other problems, such as over-fishing and pollution, so many scientists believe that the added stress from microplastics could be pushing some species closer to extinction.
The extent to which microplastics have any serious long-term effects on humans is unknown. The limited research that has been collected suggests that exposure to plastic-associated, hormone-altering toxins can trigger changes in gene expression and biochemical reactions. The long-term effects of these changes have not yet been sufficiently explored, however, it has been shown that when passing the blood-brain barrier, nanoplastics have a behaviour-changing effect in fish.
It is up to all of us to reduce our own unnecessary plastic consumption. We can all make an effort to avoid plastic and reduce our consumption of products with excess plastic packaging. In doing so, we can encourage businesses to improve product and packaging design to use less plastic, to seek out more environmentally friendly packaging alternatives, and increase emphasis on recycled plastics. However, for this this work, businesses and governments must regulate the plastic supply chain to encourage and monitor reducing, reusing, and recycling, throughout the entire product lifecycle.
For more information about how you can support plastic reduction and reap the maximum benefit from the items you use every day while leaving the minimum impact, visit onegreenplanet.org and join the #CrushPlastic Movement!