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The Menace of Microplastics

Updated: May 28, 2022

Though micro-sized, the threats they pose may have global implications.

Pieces of plastic waste floating in the ocean
Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash

I’m surrounded by plastic. It’s in the sheets I sleep in, the phone that wakes me up, the clothing that I wear, the carafe that boils my water for my coffee, the keyboard, mouse, and monitor that I sit down to start working at. It’s so much a part of my life that I don’t give much thought to it.

There’s another part of plastic that I also never think about. Microplastics. These are the bits of plastic that are smaller than five millimeters long. That’s about the size of a sesame seed. And they, too, are everywhere in my home, shedding off my clothing and anything that’s made of plastic. They also come in from the outdoors, carried in on my clothing and in the air surrounding me.

Plastic bottle floating in the ocean
Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Outside my home, microplastics are everywhere. All over my town and state. All over North America. All over the world—in Antarctica, the Himalayas, and even the Mariana Trench. They are in our food and water. And they are in us.

Fear of the unknown

Disturbingly, it’s unknown if and how these tiny bits of plastic might impact our health. But researchers are working to find answers. What we do know is that microplastics can impede crop growth. The specifics are still being determined, but there’s a growing body of research about microplastics, soil composition, and the tiny animals that live in the soil. A change in soil composition can impede a plant’s ability to take up nutrients, hindering its growth and health. They even end up in the food we grow. Researchers in one study found that among the fruits and vegetables in their sample, apples and carrots, respectively, contained the most microplastics.

Microplastics are everywhere... They are in our food and water. And they are in us.

Animals, like birds and marine organisms, also ingest microplastics. A study on the northern fulmar, a crow-sized Arctic seabird, found trace chemicals from microplastics in the bird’s stomach oil. Some chemicals appeared within hours of the plastics being exposed to the oil. Farm animals don’t fare any better. A recent study discovered microplastic coursing through the veins of cows and pigs. The implications are uncertain.

Ocean spitting plastic

This past year another uncertainty about microplastics has been appearing in the headlines. This one deals with a startling discovery: the ocean releases microplastics into the atmosphere. Just how much is not known, but estimates put it at several million tons.

Waves crashing into rocks
Jana Sabeth on Unsplash

Salt spray is a phenomenon that scientists have known about for some time. If you’ve ever gone to a beach and noticed how the air smells different closer to the water, that scent is the salt spray from the ocean. It got there via a complicated process involving waves, air bubbles, and wind. Waves crashing into each other or near a shoreline create air bubbles that collect at the surface of the water. When the bubbles pop, tiny sea spray particles are injected into the air and captured by the wind. Curiously, that salt spray consists of more than just salt. It also contains phytoplankton, bacteria, viruses, and … microplastics.

It’s estimated that about 380 million metric tons of plastic are manufactured annually. Of that amount, nearly 8 million metric tons end up in the oceans every year. Once in the ocean, these plastics are carried by currents. In time, wind, heat, waves, and the sun’s ultraviolet rays break the plastics down into small and smaller pieces. Some are so small that the microplastics become nanoplastics—particles measured in nanometers.

Where does it go?

Once airborne, these microplastics ride the air currents and stay aloft for an hour to perhaps a week. Swirling around in the atmosphere, there’s a possibility they might absorb or scatter sunlight and thus play a role in climate change. Scientists are beginning to research this.

Plastic waste blemishing a sandy beach
Dustan Woodhouse on Unsplash

Eventually, microplastics fall back to earth. They fall on remote Pacific islands, the steppes of Patagonia, the Tibetan Plateau, the glaciers of Greenland. On land and water. Estimates are rough, but one study determined that 132 fragments per square meter fall daily in the western United States. This might not sound like much, but collectively it adds up to about 1,000 metric tons of microplastics every year!

The ocean releases microplastics into the atmosphere. Just how much is not known, but estimates put it at several million tons.

Another study highlights “microplastic hotspots” that form on the ocean floor. Much like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, this waste can accumulate in dense patches due to a combination of underwater currents, water temperature, and salinity. Researchers found 1.9 million pieces per square meter in one hotspot in the Mediterranean.

Since the early 1950s, more than 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been manufactured. And if current trends continue, this amount will increase to 34 billion metric tons by 2050, 35 percent of which will end up in landfills or the ocean. To put this in a different perspective, within the next 30 years, there may very well be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

What can we do?

It’s hard not feeling discouraged and overwhelmed. Microplastics are a massive problem whose legacy will span generations. And because it presents so many challenges, it will require multiple solutions.

That might be the case, but one solution, in particular, might give us a boost. About half of the annual production of plastics consists of single-use plastics—cutlery, water bottles, food wrappers, straws, coffee cups, and grocery bags. This amount is equivalent to the weight of the entire world population! To decrease our use of single-use plastics, we can shift to metal water bottles, reusable bags, straws, and cutlery.

Recycling more plastic is another solution. Estimates suggest that every year only 9 percent of waste plastics are recycled. Another 12 percent is incinerated, while the remainder—79 percent—is either landfilled or ends up in the environment. Some of this plastic can’t be recycled even if we want to recycle it because of how it’s designed. For example, disposable coffee cups are designed to keep coffee hot and your hands cool and dry. This is accomplished by applying a thin layer of polypropylene film on the inside of the cup. The outside is paper, but the inside is plastic.

Switching to natural fibers is a third solution. Estimates suggest that about 35 percent of microplastics are microfibers. Where do these microfibers come from? Mostly from our textiles. That material consists of synthetic fibers, like polyester, nylon, acrylic, elastane, and polyolefin. And the same qualities that make them so spectacular—their resistance to water, heat, stains, wearing, and so on—are the very same qualities that make them so spectacularly detrimental to the environment. In contrast, natural fibers like silk, wool, cotton, linen, and jute don’t provide such a treat. Also, thanks to advances in textile manufacturing, these fibers are proving to be just as resilient and robust as their synthetic counterparts.

Addressing the multitude of challenges that microplastics present is daunting, but not all the solutions to combatting them have to be complicated. Sometimes, the best ones are the easiest to implement. Especially those that we can do ourselves.

Suggested reading

Chrobak, Ula. “Microplastics Are Everywhere. Here’s What That Means for Our Health.” Popular Science, February 11, 2021.

Geyer, Roland, Jenna R. Jambeck, and Kara Lavender Law. “Production, Use, and Fate of all Plastics Ever Made.” Science Advances 3, e170078 (July 17, 2017).

Revell, Laura E., et al. “Direct Radiative Effects of Airborne Microplastics.” Nature 598 (October 20, 2021).

Stevenson, Charlotte. “Opinion: The Ocean Is Returning Our Plastic Waste. That’s a Real Problem.” Undark, December 9, 2021.

Weisberger, Mindy. “Should You Worry about Microplastics in Bottled Water?Live Science, March 15, 2018.

Thanks for stopping by

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