Concerns have been growing about a type of pollution called microplastics. These plastic particles have been turning up everywhere, from the depths of the ocean to the tip of Mount Everest.
Microplastics are pieces of plastics smaller than 5 millimeters in size, falling into one of two categories: primary or secondary. Primary microplastics are defined as those used in cosmetic products, also known as micro-beads. Microbeads are found in exfoliants, toothpaste, and facewash. Secondary microplastics are a result of broken-down plastics. Since industrially produced plastic never breaks down completely, we are left with plastic fragments virtually everywhere.
Microplastics alarmed scientists in the early 2000s amidst a marine pollution study when excessive plastics were found in the digestive organs of aquatic mammals and sea life. This discovery led researchers to believe that we are consuming more plastic than suspected.
The consumption of microplastics occurs in a variety of ways. For example, the lifespan of one plastic bottle can result in microplastic consumption from over a hundred different avenues. To start, when a plastic bottle is first used, materials will break down and pollute the liquid inside that you then drink. Simply consuming plastic packaging such as bottles, food packaging, or disposable plates, will put you in contact with harmful chemicals. Plastic leaching occurs most when materials get hot, causing chemicals to break off into the human environment. 90% of bottled water is contaminated by microplastic pollutants. As the journey continues, that same plastic bottle ends up in waterways, consumed by aquatic life, and later eaten by yours truly. Or maybe it ends up in a landfill, where it takes years to break down completely. In the meantime, our bottle leaks into the ground and our water sources and soils, entering the environment once again. To top it all off, when plastics are broken down enough times they can travel into the air and enter our bodies through inhalation. On average, a person consumes a credit card worth of plastic each week.
While research is still being developed, these microplastics have been discovered to affect human hormones, digestion, immunity, and neurological issues. Since the discovery of microplastics is fairly new, we do not know the long-term effects of microplastics on human health. Julie Peller, Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University states, “My concern is the push by the industry to introduce more plastic materials in the upcoming years. Our children are exposed to these materials far more than previous generations since half of all plastic was manufactured in the past 15 years.” She continues, “The health consequences are not known at this point. As we continue to better understand the extreme plastic pollution created over the past several decades, governments and people must pay attention to the science and begin reducing plastics, starting with single-use plastics.”
Due to their small size, microplastics are much harder to clean up. Many cleanup efforts cannot completely remove microplastics. Therefore, it is essential to put our energy into prevention methods.
Most important, action is required by consumers and businesses to reduce their use of plastic. When plastic use is necessary, we must properly recycle to maintain a safe environment for ourselves and others.
While this may seem like an inescapable problem, there are a variety of ways we can avoid the harmful effects of microplastics. First, we can avoid single-use plastic. Stop using plastic bottled water and carry a reusable water bottle instead. Refrain from using products with microbeads and choose natural exfoliants with sugar, coffee grounds, or salt. Opt for reusable grocery bags and drop off plastic bags at one of our compost sites for proper recycling. Avoid littering and participate in garbage pickups whenever possible. Lastly, support companies that are stepping away from plastic packaging.
Through education and small behavior shifts, we can reduce our dependence on harmful plastics and make our planet safer for generations to come.