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The World Is Choking on Microplastics

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.

Large particles of microplastic.

Large particles of microplastic.

What Are Microplastics?

Far from big cities and dense human habitation, scientists are finding deposits of microplastics. The small fragments are defined as five mm or less; that is about the size of a grain of rice and smaller. These tiny beads are in our oceans, on our land, and part of the food and water that sustains us. And, not much is known about how they might affect our health.

Creation of Microplastics

Plastic production is big—very big. About 335 million tonnes of the stuff is turned out every year. It’s estimated that about half of that amount is used just once.

In The Independent, Chelsea Ritschel writes that “Currently, only nine percent of the world’s plastic is recycled—a problem because most plastics are not biodegradable and typically take more than 400 years to degrade. And it never fully degrades, rather it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that are eventually ingested by marine life.”

The tiny pieces of plastic don’t just come from discarded shopping bags, food containers, and packaging; some is manufactured on purpose. Plastic microbeads are put into such products as cosmetics, toothpaste, and detergents, although some jurisdictions are now banning this technology.

Wind-Borne Pollution

Once discarded, single-use plastics don’t stay where they are dropped. That pop bottle, carelessly chucked out of a car window, might lie in the ditch for decades slowly breaking apart.

Some of it might be carried into rivers and lakes by a gully-washer rainstorm. Other tiny particles might be picked up by the wind and taken far afield. Saharan Desert sand provides a model for how this happens.

In June 2018, dust from the Sahara was seen to be landing in Texas. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration explains: “Normally, hundreds of millions of tons of dust are picked up from the deserts of Africa and blown across the Atlantic Ocean each year. That dust helps build beaches in the Caribbean and fertilizes soils in the Amazon.”

The same dynamic works with microplastics that are picked up in one location and dumped somewhere else.

Dust is blown off the Sahara across the Atlantic Ocean.

Dust is blown off the Sahara across the Atlantic Ocean.

Wilderness Plastics

The Pyrenees separate Spain and France. There’s a secluded area in the mountains thought to be pristine wilderness in which scientists have found deposits of plastic trash.

A team from universities in Scotland and France estimates that 365 pieces of microplastic settle on every square metre of the area daily. But, the pollutants have been found farther from human habitation than that.

In 2018, Greenpeace mounted an expedition to the Antarctic. Australia’s SBS News reports that microplastics “were detected in nine of 17 water samples it collected on its expedition.”

Unwitting consumers of microplastics.

Unwitting consumers of microplastics.

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The fact is there’s no place on Earth that doesn’t have microplastic deposits. These substances are ubiquitous; as Fiona Harvey reports in The Guardian, they have been found “from tap water and seawater to flying insects and are probably even in the air we breathe. Last year, a study found microplastics in human faeces for the first time.”

Effects of Microplastics

Most plastics are made from hydrocarbons; that is coal, oil, and natural gas. From these feedstocks, chains of molecules are created called polymers, and these are formed into plastics.

The “poly” is used to name many plastics such as polypropylene, polythene, and polystyrene.

Polymers on their own are not considered to be toxic, but other chemicals such as chlorine, sulphur, and phosphorus are added to create various plastics. These additives can leach out of the plastics and cause harm.

In 2011, the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, reported on a study conducted by Delilah Lithner of the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences. She tested 83 randomly selected plastic products and found a third of them “released toxic substances, including five out of 13 products intended for children.”

Microplastics also turn out to be hosts for bacteria. In 2018, researchers from the National University of Singapore collected 275 microplastic samples from beaches. Today (Singapore) reported that “Of the more than 400 types of bacteria that the researchers had discovered on microplastics here and then identified through DNA sequencing, about a third are considered toxic . . . ”

Researchers are studying the harmful effects of microplastics.

Researchers are studying the harmful effects of microplastics.

Deonie Allen of the EcoLab Research Institute, Toulouse, France, is one of the many people studying microplastics. She says not enough is known about particles that are small enough to be breathed in. “That is a really big unknown,” she says, “and we don’t want it to end up with something like asbestos.”

It seems that humans have blundered into a massive public health experiment without having a clue what the outcome might be.

“Microplastics are being found absolutely everywhere [but] we do not know the dangers they could be posing. It’s no use looking back in 20 years time and saying: ‘If only we’d realised just how bad it was.’ We need to be monitoring our waters now and we need to think, as a country and a world, how we can be reducing our reliance on plastic.”

— Christian Dunn, Bangor University, Wales

Bonus Factoids

  • Polymers occur in nature; cellulose in the cell walls of plants is a polymer.
  • British inventor Alexander Parkes produced a material he called Parkesine in 1856. It was a celluloid-based material that was a commercial flop. In the United States, John Wesley Hyatt improved on Parkesine and created what is thought to be the first economically viable plastic.
  • According to The Independent, about 150 million tonnes of waste plastic is already in our oceans and this is added to by an amount “equivalent to a garbage truck full of plastic dumping plastic into the ocean every minute.”
  • The ultimate symbol of humankind’s inability to handle plastic in an environmentally sound manner is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Riding on ocean currents, a vast mass of plastic floats in the waters between Hawaii and California. The garbage covers an area that is twice the size of Texas and three times the area of France.

Sources

  • “Greenpeace Says Microplastics and Toxic Chemicals Have Turned up in Remote Regions of Antarctica.” Evan Young, SBS News, June 7, 2018
  • “Why Is Plastic Bad for the Environment and How Much Is in the Ocean?” Chelsea Ritschel, The Independent, April 18, 2018.
  • “Here Comes the Saharan Dust.” NASA Earth Observatory, June 28, 2018.
  • “Plastic Products Leach Toxic Substances.” University of Gothenburg, May 16, 2011.
  • “Mussels Lose Grip when Exposed to Microplastics – Study.” Fiona Harvey, The Guardian, January 30, 2019.
  • “Toxic Bacteria Found on Small Pieces of Plastic Trash from S’pore Beaches.” Neo Chai Chin, Today, February 11, 2019.
  • “Alarm as Study Shows how Microplastics Are Blown Across the World.” Damian Carrington, The Guardian, April 15, 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.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

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