The Ins and Outs of Microplastics

The Ins and Outs of Microplastics

“By 2050, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.”  If you haven’t heard this popular claim by now, then it’s time for you to learn about the plastic crisis our world is facing.  Although this startling prediction made by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum has been questioned by some, due to the difficulties involved with accurately measuring plastic as well as fish in the world’s oceans, the potential statistic has at least helped raise awareness to the public on the grave issue at hand.

The discussion on plastics and what they’re doing to the environment, to countless animals, and potentially to human health is unequivocally overwhelming.  From the many types of plastic pollutants that exist to the many hopeful solutions being proposed to help this epidemic, there is no doubt a lot of information the public needs to be conscious of in this current era of plastic.  And because there are so many pieces to this crisis, IFCNR plans on posting several articles on the topic.

In order to better understand the current plastic predicament, it only makes sense to start by addressing what plastics are.  Plastic has been defined as a synthetic material that can be made from a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic chemical compounds derived from petrochemicals, or oil.  Plastic is malleable and can be easily molded into solid objects due to its chemical makeup of long chains of polymers which can be shortened or lengthened without changing the chemical nature of the plastic.  Although invented in the mid-1800s by Alexander Parkes, the technology of plastics didn’t really take off until World War II, where they were utilized as the piping surrounding wires in war machinery.  After the War was over, the oil industry needed a new plan to continue their growth with plastics.  This new plan was to fill the newly vacant factories from the War with the necessary tools to mass produce single-use products made from plastic. And thus, a new way of convenient living started in which one can simply throw away an item after its one-time use.

It is estimated that nearly eight million metric tons of plastic are thrown into the ocean annually. And of those, 236,000 tons are microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic ranging from five millimeters all the way down to 100 nanometers.  Microplastics are categorized by their source and are put into two main categories: primary and secondary.  A primary form of microplastic is when the plastic is purposefully made to be very small. One of the most well-known examples are microbeads, the tiny plastic spheres found in certain face washes and exfoliating scrubs, toothpaste, and various cosmetics.  Secondary microplastics are formed from plastic breaking down from larger items, often caused by different types of weathering. Especially when plastics are in the ocean, items get subjected to relentless wave action, direct sunlight, and physical stressors from rubbing against rocks or reef causing them to break apart.

Some may think that plastic breaking down into smaller pieces could be a positive thing, perhaps a way to help plastic decompose.  Although larger plastic items pose direct harm to animals far and wide through entanglement as well as internal blockages from ingestion, this does not mean microplastics are to be taken lightly.  The same component which makes plastics durable, polyethylene terephthalate, also makes them very difficult to decompose.  It is said that plastic can take over 400 years to biodegrade, sometimes less and sometimes more depending on the type of plastic.  Even when plastic gets broken down into the smallest form of microplastic possible, most often occurring in the ocean, the toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A and PS oligomer still exist.  Tiny microbes can then ingest these microscopic pieces of plastic and eventually work their way up the food chain.

A recent study published in the journal Global Change Biologysurveyed 102 sea turtles belonging to all seven species found across the world, from the Pacific Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.  The results of the survey showed that every single sea turtle examined through necropsy had microplastics in their digestive system. Plastic fibers were the predominant type of microplastic found and some were able to be traced back to their origin which included clothing, tires, cigarette filters, fishing nets, and maritime equipment.  Lead author of the study, Dr. Emily Duncan of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter, explained that the effect of these particles is currently unknown and needs further monitoring and research since the potential harm could be gradual.  Of particular concern is the transfer of dangerous bacteria, viruses, and toxins by way of the microplastics, which have been shown to be like magnets in the ocean for chemicals and microorganisms.

Sea turtles are not the only animals shown to have microplastics inside them.  Resounding evidence has shown fish and birds, especially seabirds, to all have microplastics in their digestive tracts. In birds, researchers have found plastic forming tiny fingerlike projections inside the small intestine which disrupts the bird’s iron absorption and adds stress to the liver. But the evidence of microplastics inside living organisms doesn’t stop with animals.  Microplastics have now been found to exist in humans.

The Environment Agency Austria released a very small-scale study this year showing for the first time, microplastics in human stools.  Stool samples were collected from eight participants across the world from Europe, Japan, and Russia.  The study aimed to shed light on the extent of microplastics in the food chain although a much larger scale study still needs to be done.  This small sample is at least a start.  Philipp Schwabl, lead researcher on the study from the Medical University of Vienna, stated: “This is the first study of its kind and confirms what we have long suspected, that plastics ultimately reach the human gut.  Of particular concern is what this means to us and especially patients with gastrointestinal diseases.”

The smallest microplastic particles are capable of entering the bloodstream, which from there can lead to the lymphatic system and then the liver.  Further research is critical as researchers are concerned plastic particles in the gut could affect the digestive system’s immune response and could also aid in the transmission of toxic chemicals and pathogens, much like the concern mentioned previously about sea turtles.  To add to this troubling study, a recent analysis by researchers in South Korea and Greenpeace East Asia was released stating that microplastics are in 90% of the table salt brands sampled worldwide.  An estimate made from this analysis claims the average adult consumes 2,000 microplastics a year through salt intake.  It is important to note that although the results of these new studies sound concerning, without more research, it is impossible to know for certain what the harm of consuming microplastics is for humans.  In fact, a review was done on the 320 studies that do exist on microplastic impacts and found significant knowledge gaps in the scientific understanding.

“Our society’s addiction to throwaway plastic is fueling a global environmental crisis that must be tackled at source,” stated Louise Edge, the plastics campaigner at Greenpeace. Solutions to this world issue are not easy, but a vast array of efforts are being undertaken across the planet to try to help, from the new wave of plastic straw bans catching on to Boyan Slat and his creation of The Ocean Cleanup for tackling the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  A potential solution unique to microplastics could exist with a new bacteria discovered by Japanese researchers that naturally evolved to eat away PET, also known as polyester.  However, a response to this discovery supported by the Ocean Conservancy explained that the major problem is not breaking down the plastic, but instead the removing of plastic from the ocean.  They promote focusing on more substantial efforts to keeping plastics out of the ocean in the first place.

The discussion on all the solutions to the plastic crisis is very multifaceted. IFCNR will be doing a separate blog post on this topic in the near future.

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