WRITTEN BY: Sarah and Mike
Microplastics are defined as pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters long (about the size of a sesame seed). But what do these particles have to do with us?
Actually, a lot. These small pieces of plastic - either from bigger pieces of plastic breaking down, washing off synthetic fibers used to make clothing, or coming from self-care products - are making their way into our fresh water systems. That means they are ending up in the human food chain - our clean drinking water - and ultimately, making their way into our bodies.
Plastic is a synthetic material that revolutionized the industrial complex. Due to the cheap prices of the chemicals, materials, and labor needed to manufacture plastic, it became widely available and used globally in areas from the medical industry to the food industry to the beauty industry. Plastic was created in 1907 and its uses quickly diversified. We see plastic absolutely everywhere in single-use instances: water bottles, food packaging, medical packaging, toothbrushes, cars, pens, baggies, etc. Humans use over 300 million tons of plastic each and every year; half of that is for single-use items.
Since plastic is formed by un-natural means, it never biodegrades. Instead, what we see is plastic continually breaking down into ever smaller particles, but never disappearing. As the particles from plastic that has washed into the oceans become small enough, smaller organisms consume the plastic. The plastic remains in their bodies as they are eaten by larger fish (tuna, salmon, etc), many of which are then consumed by humans. A European study revealed that over 1/3 of fish caught contained plastics within their bodies. Additionally, in a 2017 study from around the world, 83% of drinking water samples contained microplastics. In the US, over 94% of the drinking water samples contained plastics (these include congressional buildings, amongst many other politically significant establishments). Over 8 million tons of plastic are dumped in the oceans every year. Plastics have also been found in beer, rainwater, the air, bottled water, honey, and sugar.
Chances are, if you eat seafood or if you drink water, you may have plastic in your body. Scientists are not sure what exactly happens to plastic in the human body, or in the bodies of wildlife that are unknowingly consuming plastic when they drink water. One of the current studies shows that microplastics in water contain higher concentrations of pathogens and other toxic substances. That could mean plastics are causing cancer or becoming embedded in our soft tissue, amassing over our lifetime. Microplastics can be inhaled from the air as well, interfering with the respiratory and circulatory systems of the mammals that breathe them in (including humans).
In response to this emerging crisis, former President Barack Obama signed the Micro-bead Free Waters Act of 2015, banning plastic micro-beads in cosmetic products. This is one small but meaningful step in recognizing the real impacts plastic is having on the eco-system. There are many actions that can be taken at a local level to reform policies and reform business practices! Get involved in your community today - whether it's bringing your own bags, picking up litter, spreading the word, or lobbying for change in policy, there are so many ways we can take steps in the right direction.
It is said that by the year 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. While that fact is startling, there is still time to make a change. Reducing consumption and use of plastic in your daily life can make a massive difference now and in the years to come. Together, we must take action.
Here are a few things you can start doing immediately:
- Do not buy produce or foods packaged in plastic. Find an alternative from a local farmer, grow/make it yourself, avoid processed foods, do not support businesses that use plastic packaging.
- Do not use plastic bags, but instead, bring your own reusable cloth bag!
- Ask local restaurants to convert to more eco-friendly packaging.
- Do not buy products that come in plastic: cleaning materials, self-care products, etc. Learn how to make it yourself! Support local businesses that opt for glass or paper packaging.
- Use biodegradable, plant-based alternatives that can be composted.
- Recycle any plastic in an appropriate way.
- Do not litter, pick up any trash in local areas.
- Buy clothes made of bamboo or cotton instead of polyester.