In just over a century, since the emergence of mass-produced plastics that have gone on to become an undoubted commercial and industrial behemoth of human existence, the world has become addicted to the stuff. Bags, bottles, packaging components, cups, packaging and so on. The list is seemingly endless and the use of plastic from tires to toothpaste goes on.
Most will know that, once created, plastic is very hard to dispose of – that it takes years and years to decompose. But when we think of lingering plastic pollution, we tend to conjure up the image of the, well “bigger stuff” – bottles, crates and bags for example. Yet the issue of microplastics, tiny fragments of plastic by the trillions and trillions, is now looming ever larger on the radar of major environmental problems plaguing the planet.
Microplastics are defined as very small pieces of plastic, generally held to be less than 5mm in diameter. (There are some variances on that, but the generally accepted definition is 5mm or less.)
And they are making their way steadily, remorselessly into the world’s seas, oceans and eco-cultures, wreaking damage to the environment, marine wildlife and storing up problems for future human health.
That’s because microplastics are very easily transmitted through the food chain. Fish, birds and wildlife mistake the tiny fragments of plastic for food and digest them. In some cases, microplastics also can be absorbed into an organism through respiration. Larger predators, including humans, then consume those that have consumed microplastic particles. In an eye-widening scenario of human short-sightedness, what is being thrown or washed away by humans is ultimately being eaten by humans – oblivious to the very fact.
There are two categories of microplastics – primary and secondary, both of which are equally detrimental to the environment.
Primary microplastics are specifically manufactured and are used in a large number of commercial and industrial products. From the tires of cars and airplanes, to synthetic textiles through to some health and beauty products, microplastics can be found. And that is far from an exhaustive list. With such widespread use, primary microplastics easily make their way into waterways and sewage systems, which in turn make their way into rivers, lakes, seas and oceans.
For example, some cosmetics companies use microplastics (known as microbeads) in their defoliating products. The tiny fragments of plastic are used as a modern alternative to, say, pumice, as an abrasive agent in the product. That’s millions of people every day using those sorts of defoliants that end up getting washed down the sink or the shower and out into the waterways.
Some attempts have been made to stymie this problem, but have been relatively limited. For example, the US banned the manufacture of “rinse-off” microplastics in cosmetics and personal care products, effective from July 2017, and other countries have followed suit.
While this helps, it is though only a very limited step in the right direction. India, for example, is to ban the same by 2020. That’s another year and a half of over one billion potential consumers using microbead laced cosmetic products. Worse still, many countries have no such ban either in place or planned. China, with an even greater number of potential consumers, emits 209.6 trillion microbeads every year – that’s over 300,000 kilograms of microplastic entering waterways year on year.
While cosmetics are one thing, there are plenty of other products that have no such microbead regulation. Take for example things like laundry tablets and detergents can be microplastic dense. They contain tiny particles of abrasives like polypropylene or polyethylene (the same plastics found in some cosmetics now banned in a number of countries) that once used are flushed out into the waterways and ultimately into the eco-system.
While primary, specifically manufactured microplastics are a problem, then there are secondary micro-plastics. These are created when much larger plastic break-downs into tiny fragments. So, when plastics are dumped in the ocean for example, they eventually break down into much smaller particles. Again, the particles become ingested by fish and wildlife and the whole cycle of microplastic consumption continues to become more and more of a deep-seated, in-grained environmental problem.
The size of the microplastics problem is huge and simply isn’t going away any time soon. Many may be aware of what has now become known as, sadly, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a huge gyre of floating trash, mainly consisting of plastic, between California and Hawaii. While that is the more extreme example of maritime plastic pollution, it is far from being isolated as all of the seas and oceans of the world are polluted with plastic
According to a recent report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 30% of the maritime plastic pollution is made up of microplastics.
The full, long-term extent of the damage that microplastics, primary or secondary, are having on the environment, wildlife and human welfare are still mostly unknown.
Still, humanity’s love affair with plastic continues unabated. Its use around the globe is virtually ubiquitous. Not only is it cheap to manufacture, and therefore attractive to both buyers and sellers, its other stand-out feature is of course its durability. Plastic and microplastic are the zombie “never quite die” materials of our age.
The “love of plastic” mindset needs to be over-come. Unfortunately, as with most addictions, the problem is never really recognised, let alone the cure. However, it is imperative that the fight to stop the damage that microplastics are inflicting on the planet goes on.
Over-packaging consumer products with plastic is endemic and wholly unnecessary. Take boxed cereal for example. Many times the cereal is dwarfed by the box and the plastic lining inside. There is simply no need for this other than it is a corporate ploy to make the packaging bigger to seemingly offer the consumer “more.”
Businesses need to lessen their reliance on over-packaging and develop a keener sense of corporate responsibility to the environment.
Consumers need to be mindful of those products that contain microplastics whenever possible – some label checking and a little research for alternative products would go a long way. Reusing and recycling become ever more vital.
National governments and the international community need to do more to reduce, or ideally ban, microplastics whenever possible.
While it’s not too late to stop the threat of micro-plastic pollution, there isn’t a day more to lose.