What is microplastic anyway? In the insidious pollution that is absolutely everywhere


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A 2020 study found that some bodies of water may have more microplastics than zooplankton, a group of plankton that includes tiny animals and some immature larger animals. This may not be a big deal, but myriad types of water rely on zooplankton as a source of food; Your experience is synonymous with accidentally eating a credit card half the time trying to eat what’s on your plate.

In fact, plastic pollution is one of the greatest ongoing threats to the planet, on a par with climate change and biodiversity loss. Plastics are responsible for poisoning our bodies, lowering our fertility rates, and destroying wildlife both on land and in the ocean.

But plastic pollution doesn’t mean floating bottles and utensils, medical devices, and incidental consumer waste. Plastic pollution from these and other goods is broken down into smaller and smaller pieces in the ocean. A lot of plastic spills are so tiny that they appear as grains or maybe invisible to the naked eye. These are known as Microplastics; And while they are tiny compared to the giant, billowing chimneys and mushroom clouds we associate with the most ominous symbols of pollution, microplastics are no less ominous.

What is microplastic?

“A microplastic is usually defined as a particle that is five millimeters or less in width or length,” Rolf Halden, director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering at Arizona State University, told Salon. “Even there, people disagree, but let’s say it’s only five millimeters or less in diameter that makes microplastic.” Halden says it is “plastic shavings or debris” floating in the ocean and constantly being crushed by the surf. Some microplastics are also remnants of rubber tire chips that are blown off highways when cars drive – these are rubber polymers.

Jacqueline Doremus, assistant professor of economics at Cal Poly who, among other things, is an expert in assessing the effectiveness of environmental policies, explained that the plastics industry itself is linked to the petrochemical manufacturing industry, which plays a large role in environmental pollution. This economic perspective explains why plastics have become so ubiquitous and, as a result, microplastic pollution has become such a major environmental problem.

“Plastic is a by-product of petrochemical manufacturers,” Doremus told Salon via email. “The falling demand for oil and gas means that producers are turning to plastic. At the same time, more than three quarters of plastic additives are not passed on to researchers, the public or regulatory authorities because they are protected as intellectual property or improperly documented. So we have two forces at work: strong incentives for a strong industry to grow plastics production and a poor understanding of the sometimes toxic additives they use. “

Where are Microplastics?

There is no easy answer to this question: you are literally everywhere. You cannot escape them.

“Microplastics are insidious and now cover large areas of our planet,” wrote Mary Crowley, founder and president of the Ocean Voyages Institute, to Salon. “In addition to the deepest part of our ocean, the Mariana Trench, microplastics can also be found on the Rocky Mountains, the Pyrenees, the Arctic, the Antarctic and in the oceans and deserts of the world – everywhere!” Worse still, because plastic is not biodegradable ( i.e. can decompose because bacteria or other organisms consume it) it will persist for centuries.

“Microplastics end up ingested by small organisms, which in turn are ingested by larger organisms like fish and birds, and that’s how plastic gets into and up the food chain on our planet,” said Crowley. “Microplastics and larger pieces of plastic now often fill the stomachs of fish, birds, whales, dolphins, seals and turtles, causing disease and death.”

Why is microplastic dangerous?

Crowley also explained how microplastics pose a threat to human health.

“Microplastics contain toxic chemicals and hormone-altering compounds that can affect human health from reproductive to immune function,” Crowley told Salon. “We need to do more studies to get a full understanding of all the effects microplastics have on human health and the health of our oceans, but from what we can see, we know that plastics are made with substances that are not meant to be “At the macro level, microplastics manipulate the ocean’s ability to store carbon through plankton and affect the air we breathe.”

Halden said lay people might wonder why we make so many products out of plastic when it is toxic or harmful.

“The answer to that is that in the past we selected enough ingredients to make plastics that turned out to be very bad in retrospect,” explained Halden. One example is vinyl chloride, which scientists later learned was a powerful carcinogen. Obviously, all we have to do is keep it away from products that might contaminate our food and we should be fine, right?

“If you pay attention to food we don’t use PVC [polyvinyl chloride, a polymer of vinyl chloride] to pack food, ”said Halden. “We use polyethylene and other polymers, right? And they are initially safe for the purpose for which they are intended. However, since we make so much of it and it gets into the environment, it gets ground up. They change their chemical composition and appearance and become a health risk. “

To illustrate the processes here, Halden suggested imagining a single-use plastic yoghurt pot. Once you’ve eaten the yogurt, throw away the cup. What is happening to it? Chances are, it will eventually find its way into a body of water like the sea or a river.

“It hovers there for a long time and can absorb a lot of air and water pollutants,” explains Halden. “It becomes like a poisonous swimmer and its surface finish can change so that it looks almost like a piece of asbestos. And we know that foreign particles entering our lungs or other organs can cause inflammation and cancer. The material changes over time and with it the risk, and this is not intuitively understandable for a layperson when he evaluates plastic and asks himself: “Should I buy more plastic? Am I doing the right thing here? Or should I change my behavior.” ? ” “

How can we protect ourselves from microplastics?

Lisa Erdle is the Science and Innovation Manager at 5 Gyres, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting plastic pollution.

“Once microplastics are in the environment, it is almost impossible to remove,” Erdle wrote to the salon. “For example, there have been some technologies that have been developed to ‘clean up’ the ocean, but these are expensive, have other negative effects on the environment and are extremely difficult to implement on a large scale. before it gets into the environment. “One example is washing machine filters that catch microfibers before they can get into water; another is rainwater drains that catch plastic on our streets before they get into water.

“Since there are many different sources of microplastics in the environment, we will likely need a number of different solutions to prevent their emissions into the environment,” said Erdle.


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Doremus phrased the question as one of protecting our fundamental freedoms, arguing that the manufacturers themselves must be held accountable.

“The problem boils down to the rights,” wrote Doremus. “Who has the right – company – to produce plastic without consequences? Or people who have a plastic threshold that they can expect in the air we breathe and in the water we drink? “

With this in mind, Doremus pushed for a number of approaches, including taxing plastic and reclassifying it as a pollutant so that it can be regulated and forcing companies to “take back” their plastics. At the individual level, people can change their lifestyle to reduce their plastic emissions.

“Wash your clothes less and dry them on the line, this avoids microfiber pollution and CO2 emissions – a win-win situation,” argued Doremus. “The same goes for carpooling and reducing driving, which reduces tire fiber, carbon emissions and local pollutants that aggravate asthma, as the manufacturing process is likely to introduce microplastics. Reduce your plastic use wherever you can.”

She added, “Start small and be nice to yourself when you can’t avoid it. It’s not you – it’s us. “

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