I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
According to a 2019 article in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the “annual microplastics consumption [for Americans] ranges from 39,000 to 52,000 particles depending on age and sex. These estimates increase to 74,000 and 121,000 when inhalation is considered.” Scientists say it’s unclear what effect this has on human bodies.
Growth of the Plastics Industry
Before 1869 there were no plastics; that’s when John Wesley Hyatt invented a way of treating cellulose from cotton fibre to create a material that could replace such things as ivory and tortoiseshell.
Called celluloid, it was greeted as a revolutionary new substance, welcomed especially, no doubt, by elephants and tortoises that no longer had to die in order that billiard balls and combs could be made.
In 1907, Bakelite came along and chemical companies started investing heavily in research. Nylon arrived in 1935, but it was World War II that really boosted the invention of new plastics.
Soon plastics were ubiquitous; they were turning up in furniture, medical equipment, packaging, cars, and clothing.
But by the 1960s, doubts started to emerge about the durability of plastics and pollution. The Science History Institute sums up the public attitude: “Plastic also gradually became a word used to describe that which was cheap, flimsy, or fake.”
But the stuff was just so darned useful to manufacturers that worries were set aside in favour of productivity and profit. In 1967, world production of plastics was 25 million tonnes. Today, production is around 400 million tonnes a year and is projected to reach 800 million tonnes by 2040.
Since plastics moved into mass production, almost 8.5 billion tonnes have been created; and only nine percent of this is recycled, while 12 percent is incinerated. The rest piles up in landfills or just lies around where it’s discarded and usually finds its way into the oceans.
In general, plastics take a long time to decompose; some break down faster than others. But “fast” is a relative term. Australia’s World Wildlife Fund gives us a decomposition timescale for plastic items:
- Shopping bag: 20 years
- Drinking straw: 200 years
- Six-pack yoke: 400 years
- Water bottle: 450 years
- Toothbrush: 500 years
But those are theoretical numbers; we can’t really know that a substance that's only existed for 40 years will take 400 years to degrade in the natural environment. As Rick Smith writes in The Globe and Mail:
“It turns out that plastic never truly disintegrates. Through the action of sunlight and waves over a long period of time, it just keeps getting shredded into smaller and smaller bits.”
This is the invisible-to-the-naked-eye world of microplastics.
There is no part of our ecosystem that does not now carry a load of microplastics. They’ve been found in both polar regions, at the tops of mountains, in deep ocean trenches, and in the bodies of pretty much every life form. Some researchers call them “stealth plastics” because they surround us and are invisible.
That favourite shirt or blouse is a case in point. It’s likely got a fair amount of synthetic fibre in it; about 60 percent of our clothes are made from materials such as acrylic, nylon, or polyester. As you wear your clothes, they shed fibres that are so small you can’t see them.
The environmental group Fashion Takes Action notes:
“It doesn’t stop there. Simply washing these synthetic clothes causes these microfibres to be consistently released into our water systems . . . As a result, they end up in our nearby rivers, lakes, and oceans . . . they can make their way through the food chain―and into us!”
Anybody who has ever eaten fast food, and that means pretty much all of us, can’t fail to notice all the plastic being used. The serving tray, the cutlery, and the drinks cups are used once for a few minutes and then begin their journey into becoming microplastics.
Are Microplastics Harmful?
In 2019, researchers in Germany published the results of a study done on 34 commonly used plastic consumer products. They identified more than 1,000 chemicals in such things as yogurt tubs and bathmats. Many of these substances are known to be toxic to humans, causing issues such as endocrine disruption and cancer.
Other studies have shown that heavy metals and pesticides can be absorbed by discarded plastics.
According to an October 2019 article in the Annals of Internal Medicine, some particles of plastic can pass through the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. That means they get into the bloodstream and, eventually, travel to blood filtration organs such as the spleen and liver.
New Zealand’s Science Learning Hub comments: “A rapidly growing body of research is showing that ongoing accumulation of toxins associated with plastics poses a risk to our food safety and public health. However, the levels of plastics and associated chemicals we are exposed to in our diet compared with other everyday activities has not been assessed.”
The consensus among healthcare professionals is that not enough is known about the effects of microplastics on our bodies. In cases such as this, it’s wise to apply “The Precautionary Principle.”
This is defined by the government of Canada: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent adverse health impact or environmental degradation.”
- If plastic production continues to increase at its present rate, by 2050 landfills will contain 12 billion tonnes of the stuff. That weight is roughly the same as 35,000 Empire State Buildings.
- In August 2017, the government of Kenya made it illegal for anyone to own a plastic shopping bag. Those found doing so face hefty fines and even the possibility of imprisonment.
- Researchers in Britain placed Petri dishes next to dinner plates in U.K. homes; an average of 14 microplastics landed on the dishes in just 20 minutes.
- On average, each American discards 185 pounds (84 kg) of plastic annually.
- As bans on the use of plastic drinking straws spread around the world, the re-election campaign of former President Donald Trump was selling them with his name on them, because “Liberal paper straws don’t work.” A pack of 10 cost $15.00.
- “Human Consumption of Microplastics.” Kieran D. Cox, et al., Environmental Science and Technology, June 2019.
- “You Eat Thousands of Bits of Plastic Every Year.” Sarah Gibbens, National Geographic, June 5, 2019.
- “History and Future of Plastics.” Science History Institute, undated.
- “The Lifecycle of Plastics.” WWF Australia, June 19, 2018.
- “A Whopping 91% of Plastic Isn’t Recycled.” Laura Parker, National Geographic, December 20, 2018.
- “We Are all Plastic People now, in Ways we Can’t See – and Can no Longer Ignore.” Rick Smith, Globe and Mail, July 17, 2020.
- “The Problem with Microfibres.” Fashion Takes Action, June 2, 2020.
- “The Ins and Outs of Microplastics.” Stephanie Wright and Ian Mudway, Annals of Internal Medicine, October 2019.
- “Benchmarking the in Vitro Toxicity and Chemical Composition of Plastic Consumer Products.” Lisa Zimmermann, et al., Environmental Science and Technology, August 2019.
- “How Harmful Are Microplastics?” Science Learning Hub, August 30, 2019.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor