Microplastics: An Unseen Threat
Plastic has become an integral part of our lives to the point that its absence is unimaginable. From food packaging to water bottles, straws to plastic bags, many gadgets we use in our daily lives, and household items— their use makes our lives easier. However, as much as plastics help us out in being more practical, they are also a lot harder to get rid of.
Only a fraction of plastic waste is recycled, merely nine percent worldwide. The rest are either left in landfills, incinerated, or unfortunately mismanaged, and it is ambiguous as to what happens to mismanaged ones or where they are stranded. Pollution may come from huge leaked hunks of plastics or shortly macroplastics. However, while pollution from macroplastics is also concerning, what is more frightening is the leakage of microplastics that end up entering the ecosystem (OECD).
Microplastics are small particles of plastics. To be precise, they are pieces of plastic that are smaller than five millimeters in diameter ("Microplastics"). They can be composed of any type of plastic and can have various shapes, colors, and sizes (“Plastics and Plankton in Our Seas.” ). Some of these smaller microplastics are not even visible to the naked eye. Microplastics can either be primary or secondary depending on how they have formed. Primary microplastics are manufactured as small particles such as microfibers in textiles, while secondary microplastics are formed through the fragmenting of larger plastic objects such as plastic bags through various impacts of external factors ("Microplastics").
There are various microplastic types, from nurdles to microbeads, from microfibers to foam and fragments. Some of these, such as fragments which are secondary plastics and microbeads which are small pieces of plastic used as raw material to create plastic materials, can join ecosystems really easily. Considering the fact that plastic does not biodegrade, they can mix with water to travel in aquatic environments as well as with soil, possibly impacting crops or plants, and so on (“Microplastics and Plankton” ). Usually, secondary plastics from plastic waste end up in the food chain of aquatic animals (“Microplastics in Food and Water – Are They Harmful to Human Health?” ).
After these microplastics join ecosystems, it is inevitable for some organisms to consume these as they feed. One example of that is zooplankton. After the consumption of microplastics, various negative effects such as a decrease in appetite and the inability to reproduce were observed (“Microplastics and Plankton” ). Zooplanktons are one of the preys of the aquatic system and as other animals feed off of them. And with these ways, microplastics are transferred up in the food chain, including to the seafood we consume.
The repercussions of microplastics are great in extent. Although humans can eliminate a part of the microplastics they ingest, smaller particles might be absorbed by the intestines (“Microplastics in Food Commodities,"). There is also the possibility of additives and contaminants most plastic wastes contain being released to the outside. Moreover, some even question the probability of pathogens binding to plastic waste and contributing to disease spread (“Health Effects of Microplastics & Pathogens"). Though the exact impacts of microplastics are not known as it depends on the amount we are exposed to, how they enter the body, the identity of the microplastics, their size, and what additives they contain (“Microplastics in Food and Water – Are They Harmful to Human Health?”).
One example of microplastics entering water is through clothes and washing machines. The clothes we wear contain microfibers, and when the waste water from laundry machines is released, they are mixed in with other large quantities of water. This creates complications since the concentration of the microfibers decreases, and it becomes harder to control. One solution is using electrodes to break down microplastics into carbon dioxide and water molecules, which is better for the ecosystem. However, this solution is applicable before the microfibers in water are diluted as it mixes with more bodies of water in wastewater treatment plants ( “Scientists Find New Way to Eliminate Microplastics from Water.”). Still, there are many ways plastic can enter the water, including the packaging we use.
Other ways of separating microplastics as well as contaminants include water distillation. First, water is brought to a boil, and then the water vapor is collected to be condensed back into the water. Thus, the difference in boiling points allows the separation by controlling the temperature. Though it sounds very useful, this process requires lots of energy as well as taking time (“How to Remove Microplastics from Drinking Water.”).
Overall, there is a great threat out there- microplastics– some of which cannot even be seen. I believe the outcome of our dependence on plastic should make us question how to be more sustainable in 2023, and what we are willing to change for our planet.
Plastic Pollution Is Growing Relentlessly as Waste Management and Recycling Fall Short, Says OECD, https://www.oecd.org/environment/plastic-pollution-is-growing-relentlessly-as-waste-management-and-recycling-fall-short.htm#:~:text=Globally%2C only 9%25 of plastic,recycled while 22%25 is mismanaged.
“Microplastics.” National Geographic Society, https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/microplastics.
Authors Carlos Barreto, et al. “Plastics and Plankton in Our Seas.” Frontiers for Young Minds, https://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frym.2021.588638.
Ivy Munnerlyn, et al. “Microplastics and Plankton” NEC, 24 Mar. 2021, https://www.yournec.org/microplastics-and-plankton/.
“Microplastics in Food and Water – Are They Harmful to Human Health?” Eufic, https://www.eufic.org/en/food-safety/article/microplastics-in-food-and-water-are-they-harmful-to-human-health.
“Microplastics in Food Commodities, a Food Safety Review on Human Exposure Through Dietary Sources” FAO, https://www.fao.org/3/cc2392en/cc2392en.pdf.
“Health Effects of Microplastics & Pathogens.” Plastic Health Coalition, 2 Mar. 2022, https://www.plastichealthcoalition.org/microplastics/.
Nishat. “Scientists Find New Way to Eliminate Microplastics from Water.” Open Access Government, 18 Jan. 2021, https://www.openaccessgovernment.org/eliminate-microplastics/101747/.
“How to Remove Microplastics from Drinking Water.” Fresh Water Systems, https://www.freshwatersystems.com/blogs/blog/how-to-remove-microplastics-from-drinking-water.
Image Source: Oregon State University, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/74/Microplastic.jpg