Microplastics are one of the biggest problems facing humanity. These tiny pieces of plastic pervade every single environment on earth – from the Arctic to the Antarctic, from the highest mountain peaks to the deepest depths of the oceans. Disconcertingly, they are also found in the human body.
When we use plastic, when we throw it away or flush it down our drains, that is not the end of the matter. Those plastics that you are sending out into the environment end up in our water supplies. They can also end up on our plates.
Both in the seas and oceans, and while it is on land, plastic litter has a huge impact on wildlife. Wildlife gets entangled in larger pieces of plastic and can be injured or killed. Many creatures also eat plastics – causing internal injury and even death. Floating plastics are also implicated in the spread of invasive marine species, pathogens and bacteria, which disrupt ocean ecosystems.
But it is when the plastic litter begins to break down into ever smaller and smaller pieces that the most pervasive and worrying problems arise.
Microplastics enter food chains and cause huge environmental disruption and a huge range of health problems in animals – including (potentially) people, though the health effects of microplastic ingestion are not yet fully understood. Microplastics accumulate in layers in the marine environment.
It is not only the breakdown of the plastic itself that causes concern. The particles also absorb chemicals from their surroundings – and these can often produce toxic or carcinogenic substances. Scientists are increasingly concerned by the long-term health impacts of ingesting plastic.
Yet you are almost certainly eating plastic for your dinner. Fish eat plastics, and therefore when we choose to eat them, we are ingesting what they ate too. The transfer of contaminants between marine species and humans through the consumption of seafood has been identified as a health hazard but has not yet been adequately researched.
And a recent study found plastic particles and microfibres in packaged sea salt, beer, bottled water and tap water, making it virtually certain we are ingesting microplastics – whether we eat seafood or not.
Microplastics also make their way into fields growing vegetable crops and livestock through water, and through fertilization with slurry from sewage treatment plants. And unfortunately, again, we don't know much about what happens when they get there.
They leave the oceans through food chains, and also through bubble burst ejection, cast back up onto land in sea sprays. And we're not just eating plastic – we also breathe it in.
What We Can Do About Microplastic Pollution
- Refuse to buy plastic products (including synthetic clothing) where an alternative is available.
- Reduce our overall consumption to reduce the amount of plastic entering our homes.
- Reuse bags, bottles, cups, straws, etc. to avoid disposable single-use plastic whenever we can.
- Repair items to keep them in use, and help repair degraded ecosystems through conservation and clean-up efforts.
- Recycle plastics, and put pressure on big business, authorities, government, etc. to do the same.