The World Is Choking on Microplastics

Updated on April 25, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

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.

Large particles of microplastic.
Large particles of microplastic. | Source

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.” And it's not just marine life; that delicious red snapper you had for dinner contained a side order of microplastics.

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. | Source

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. | Source

The fact is there’s no place on Earth that doesn’t have microplastic deposits. These substances are ubiquitous, as Fiona Harvey reports (January 2019) 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 …”

Source

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.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Miebakagh57 profile image

      Miebakagh Fiberesima 

      3 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

      As individuals and corporates, the environment could be better. Thanks.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      3 months ago from The Caribbean

      Informative and helpful. Thanks for sounding the alarm. Each person can participate in necessary action. Hope we do.

    • Miebakagh57 profile image

      Miebakagh Fiberesima 

      3 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

      I agreed. Here in Lagos, Nigeria, a school got into partnership with a plastic disposal firm for parents to pick up microplastics at a certain rate in exchange for school fee. At other places, gifts were given so that the plastic wastes are gathered for recycling.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      3 months ago from UK

      Sometimes individuals need to take the initiative. We have groups in the UK who voluntarily clear debris from beaches.

    • Miebakagh57 profile image

      Miebakagh Fiberesima 

      3 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

      Hello, Liz, I totally agreed with you. I was once concerned about all these for a long time. So I took the initiative to mobilized some guys to help me. But unknown to me, politics was running in the forefront. They told me not to worry until the government wades in.

      Then an incident occurs. Some batch of soldiers were draft into the area to stop an unrest situation among the youths. I ask for the soldiers' permission to burn up the wastes, and they said it is okay, and I go ahead. I am a fisherman and on a fishing expendition there then.

      When the army left the area, refuse continued to heap up and flow into the nearby creek and river at an alarming rate. Marine life is destroyed and no person has fished there again for the past ten years.

      Three days ago, I took a shot of the part of the creek flowing with microplastics. I will later post the same for discussion in the forum. Thank you. Happy Sunday, and happy Eater.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      3 months ago from UK

      A combination of all those ideally. We all have a part to play.

    • Miebakagh57 profile image

      Miebakagh Fiberesima 

      3 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

      Hi, Liz, I agreed. Whose responsibility can this be? Government, corporate organizations, or individuals? I think there is yet to be a law for this. Thank you.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      3 months ago from UK

      We are dealing with an environmental timebomb. This is an informative and helpful article. Sadly it looks like too little action is being taken too late.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      3 months ago from Sunny Florida

      The amount of microplastics is so horrible for our planet. We need to use some things that Marshall Mendoff has developed. For instance, he can make plastic silverware that will degrad in 3 months or whenever we want. He uses plant cellulose and makes so many products that do not harm the environment. Your article sure tells us what a huge problem these microplastics are for our world.

    • DWDavisRSL profile image

      DW Davis 

      3 months ago from Eastern NC

      The real shame is that most of the plastics discarded can be recycled and used over and over almost infinitely. There is no reason the leading nations haven't mandated recycling other than sloth and greed.

    • Miebakagh57 profile image

      Miebakagh Fiberesima 

      3 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

      Hello, Rupert, thanks for sharing. This plastic materials canhardly decad for up to 50 years.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, soapboxie.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://soapboxie.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)