Probably most people out there today have at least heard of microplastic by now. I would venture to guess that you almost certainly heard about it in the context of our oceans and the impacts it is having there. That’s a great start but unfortunately there is a lot more to the story, including some surprises, some cause for optimism, and some deeply troubling new studies.
To start off, let’s be sure we’re all on the same page. Microplastic, as defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the US (NOAA), are any plastic particles less than 5 microns in length, which is approximately the size of a sesame seed. It is well known by scientists, and to a lesser degree to the public, that a major source of microplastic pollution comes from the eventual breakdown of larger plastic. Over time UV radiation and the mechanical forces of wave action, if suspended in the ocean, can reduce something as large as a plastic lawn chair into miniscule microplastics.
The negative effects of microplastic in the ocean have also been widely reported. In case you don’t know, many marine organisms from shrimp the size of your pinky nail to fish the size of your arm incorrectly identify microplastic particles as food. The plastic cannot be digested and therefore builds up in these organisms. Terrible as this is, it wouldn’t be too big of an issue if the contamination stopped there. Unfortunately, the tiny guys are typically food for the bigger guys. If the big fish aren’t themselves eating ocean plastic on their own, they are unknowingly consuming prey that is chock full of it, which then builds up in them.
In the quickest possible way, this summarizes what most people understand about the microplastic problem. What I hope to do here is to deepen your understanding. For starters, did you know that the second largest source of microplastic pollution comes from synthetic textiles? Of course those sweat wicking workout shirts, comfy yoga pants, and fancy fleece sweaters and blankets are wonderful creations but they are all essentially made out of plastic. Everytime these items are washed hundreds of thousands of microscopic plastic microfibers are washed down the drain. According to the IUCN, the world washes approximately 42,000 kilotones of synthetic microfibers into the ocean last year.
Scientists are just beginning to understand the widespread scope and scale of the problem. Here are some of the most shocking findings:
- According to an investigation by Orb Media, microplastic pollution was found in drinking around the world in 83% of all samples. The US had the highest rate of contamination at 94% while countries in Europe (UK, France & Germany) had the lowest rates, which were still as high as 72%!
- The above study begs the question, is that plastic getting into us? The answer is a resounding YES! According to a pilot study by researchers from the Medical University of Vienna, found microplastic in the feces of 100% of the study’s participants. Though their sample size was small, just 8 people, they chose their participants from around the globe including Finland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Austria, Russia, Poland and the UK. Currently, a much larger version of the same study is underway though many believe the results will be similar.
- Published just this year in April in the journal Nature Geoscience, scientists report some of the most troubling findings to date. In this study researchers collected atmospheric depositions in a remote mountainous location in the French Pyrenees. Shockingly, they discovered airborne microplastic even in this pristine location. Their findings indicate that there may be method for global transport for microplastic particles through our atmosphere. Thought this is the first time such a model has been proposed for plastic, scientists have long understood how this works for other particles such as minerals nutrients. For example, dust blown off of the Sarah desert is known to travel through the atmosphere as far away as North America.
What does this all mean for human health? For the most part, the jury is out. Not enough is known at this point to make any solid conclusions but the overall consensus is that it probably isn’t good.
To leave you with a bit of hope, the world has recognized the problem and has taken steps to limit microplastic pollution. For example, microscopic plastic beads used in many cosmetic and cleaning products are now banned in most countries around the world. Also, plastic bag and utensils bans are also growing in popularity. Help push these initiatives over the line by writing to your elected representatives. While you’re at it, let them know that you demand improved recycling facilities. Furthermore, do your part to reduce reuse and recycle plastics in your life.