Did you know microplastics may remain in rivers for over 300 years before entering the ocean? Causing much greater harm to humans and the environment than previously considered.
Photo: Bucket full of microplastics that are found in the ocean.
Since the 1950s, the abundance of single-use plastic items has soared. These larger objects such as bottles, polythene bags, and packaging materials break down into microplastics, or tiny bits of plastic less than 5 millimeters long (less than half of the width of your pinky fingernail). These tiny particles are hazardous for the environment and our human health. Because they contain harmful chemicals such as pesticides and dioxins, and carry bacteria and other organic pollutants that deteriorate health and nature. These microplastics are found in places as high as Mount Everest, to human feces.
Isn’t recycled plastic our sustainable solution?
This is indeed a very good question. When the recycle loop is closed, the production of plastics has a very low carbon footprint. Ideally, these plastics would be used and afterwards fully recycled into new packaging materials. However, this tunnel vision leaves out many other crucial design criteria for sustainable packaging, such as the litter potential. The environmental impact after the packaging has been discarded needs to be taken into consideration. In practice, a large share of the plastics ends up in nature, which has significant effects on the environment. The current amount of 9.2 billion tonnes of plastics (estimated amount since the fifties), contains only 600 million tonnes recycled materials (6.5%).
It is unclear how much microplastic made it into the environment, but in 2019, the European commission estimated an amount of 25.5 trillion pieces of microplastics in the world’s upper oceans alone or the equivalent of roughly 30 billion plastic water bottles. The chemicals included in these plastics are extremely concerning to our health. The BPA chemical makes the bottles transparent, but is also found to disturb the hormonal systems in humans. DEHP chemical makes plastics more flexible, but has also been known to cause cancer.
The air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, can all contain microplastics.
Microplastic particles do not dissolve in water, which has an adverse effect on marine life and can be fatal for underwater animals. For many years, it was assumed that once microplastics entered a river, it would be only days or even hours before they were dumped into the ocean. But research from Jennifer Drummond, Ph.D., a research fellow at the University of Birmingham in the U.K., and her colleagues estimated that microplastics may remain in rivers for more than 300 years before entering the ocean. This means that microplastics in rivers have much greater potential to cause harm to humans and the environment than previously was considered.
The air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, can all contain microplastics. Honey, sea salt, beer, and dust in the air, all contain microplastics. Take a long look at your surroundings and count the amount of plastic sources you see. It is expected that you will find at least one source, and it will probably be a plastic bottle of water. Bottled water, in particular, is a major source of microplastics and contains twice as many compared to tap water. Take another look at your trash, there is a good chance these largely consist of plastic materials. Once used for packaging your ordered goods or food.
What needs to happen to tackle this issue?
By 2040 the amount of plastic deposited in the environment is expected to be approximately 380 million tons. Although plastic gained popularity solely because it was easy to use, cheap, flexible and lightweight; it is essential that we take small steps to limit our usage.
There are many simple steps to take, such as cutting back on all single use plastics, for instance by using reusable cups and water bottles, avoid microwaving food in plastic containers and try to limit your seafood intake. But even when it comes to ordering items online, you could look for brands who use sustainable packaging solutions. In fact, there is still more research needed into the effects of microplastics. But we cannot turn a blind eye to the current knowledge, together we could already make a real difference!
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The European Commission. (2019). Dangers of Microplastics. Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/research-and-innovation/en/horizon-magazine/we-still-dont-know-enough-about-dangers-microplastics
Hickok, K. (2022). How and Why Microplastics Invade Our Everyday Lives. Retrieved from https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/a39598906/are-microplastics-dangerous/
Jennifer D. Drummond, Microplastic accumulation in riverbed sediment via hyporheic exchange from headwaters to main stems, Science Advances (2022). Retrieved from DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abi9305. www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.abi9305
Petra. (2015). Little-Known Facts about PET Plastic. Retrieved from http://www.petresin.org/news_didyouknow.asp#:~:text=The%20average%20weight%20of%20single,what%20it%20weighed%20in%202000.
Plastic Soup Foundation. (2019). Facts and numbers. Retrieved from https://www.plasticsoupfoundation.org/plastic-feiten-en-cijfers/#levensloop