Microplastics – Why Sustainable Fashion Matters
Tiny Particles Equal BIG Problems For Oceans.....And Us!
“Over time, a single plastic bottle can break up into over 10,000 pieces of microplastic.”
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are defined by Oxford dictionaries as,
“extremely small pieces of plastic debris in the environment resulting from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste.”
In terms of just how small these plastics are, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines microplastics as “tiny plastic pieces less than five millimeters in length (about the size of a sesame seed, or less).”
At this size, microplastics are already hard to see with the naked eye – and they can get much, much smaller – and plastic particles can even be classified as “microplastics” as small as 10 nanometers in diameter.
Although a sesame seed might seem pretty small, the sheer amount of microplastics in our oceans is alarming and growing rapidly.
How do microplastics get in our oceans and water supply?
PRIMARY MICROPLASTICS AND MICROBEADS
Historically speaking, there are two different types of microplastics.
Primary microplastics refer to microplastics that were created manufactured intentionally to be tiny, often for cosmetic or hygienic applications, such as shampoos, bodywashes, face washes, and toothbrushes that contained “microbeads.”
The good news is that we won’t be talking much about “primary microplastics,” at least in the United States because former President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015. By July 1st, 2019, the deadline will pass for all rinse-off cosmetics (even those including non-prescription drugs), will stop the introduction or delivery for introduction of any of these products into interstate commerce.
Given that global plastic production has quadrupled since the 1960’s, and that despite a large increase in plastic recycling efforts, overall global production continues to accelerate – any victory in plastic regulation is worth getting excited about.
This is especially true of the United States, which historically has lagged behind the EU when it comes to environmental regulation.
And although the act was signed a while ago, it’s an important step in the right direction for awareness of the much larger issue of plastic pollution in oceans, lakes, rivers, and our water supply in general.
For governments, businesses, NGO’s, and most importantly consumers, we hope this act serves as an alarm bell for microplastic pollution that has only been studied recently and only entered the conversation as an environmental concern about a decade ago.
And that leads us to the heart of the microplastic problem – “secondary microplastics.”
These are plastics that were once much larger and have broken down into smaller and smaller particles in our oceans through sunlight, weathering, and oceanic tides and pressures.
Perhaps the most frightening thing about microplastics is that despite their prevalence, we don’t have enough concrete data on them to know exactly how they affect our food chain, and our health.
They could cause a number a health issues ranging from an increased risk cancer, digestive concerns, respiratory concerns, and even fertility concerns, etc.
So let’s start with what we do know by inviting our good friend, common sense (also found through our mothers and grandmothers), to the conversation:
Plastic is made from fossil fuels – usually made from liquid petroleum gases (LPG), natural gas liquids (NGL), and natural gas.
They are inorganic and non-biodegradable, and direct digestion of any quantity of plastic could cause serious health concerns if those plastic particles are not excreted through the body quickly.
Common sense says that eating plastic directly is quite obviously a bad thing that should be avoided.
And while eating a tiny piece of plastic wrapper when eating your sandwich might pass through quickly and be relatively harmless, it’s a really bad thing if ingested consistently over an extended period (even in very tiny quantities).
The truth is, we may already “directly” ingesting microplastics from our water supply, and even bottled water and other beverages – since in addition to escaping water filtration systems, microplastics can also become airborne and infect bottled beverages during the bottling/packaging process.
According, to the Guardian, scientists based at the State University of New York in Fredonia concluded that, “After an analysis of 259 bottles from 19 locations in nine countries across 11 different brands, they found an average of 325 plastic particles for every liter of water being sold.”
In other words, over 90% of bottles analyzed contained microplastics, and many of them are popular global brands such as Aquafina, Dansani, Evian, Nestle and more.
In addition to bottled water that contains airborne microplastics, there are also microplastics in tap water since particles created from weathering and sunlight can be so tiny, they escape water filtration systems altogether.
And while the jury is out on exactly how bad repeated exposure of ingestion of microplastics are for the human body, we do have a much clearer idea of how they affect crustaceans, such as oysters.
According to an environmental science research paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (NSAN) in 2016, they concluded, “This study provides evidence that micro-PS (referring to polystyrene microplastics) cause feeding modifications and reproductive disruption in oysters, with significant impacts on offspring.”
This is relevant for us not only because it could correlate to a reduction in human fertility over time, but also because we eat the digestive tissue of oysters and other crustaceans directly unlike fish which are gutted prior to consumption.
Microplastics have entered the marine food chain on virtually every level, from algae all the way up to whales and other mammals.
However, it has also entered the food chain of domesticated animals like chickens and cows, because one third of all fish caught are used as animal feed, and small fish (like anchovies, sardines, etc.) are ground up whole including all microplastic gut contents as feed.
So let’s review the gloom and doom, perhaps because microplastics COULD BE the most dangerous future environmental and human health issue created by plastic pollution in general.
Microplastics are prevalent in virtually all types of beverages, whether tap water or bottle beverages (airborne through bottling and packaging processes).
They are prevalent in virtually all bodies of water, whether they be oceans, lakes, or rivers.
Similarly, microplastics are present and ingested by many marine animals, and spread from marine ecosystems to terrestrial farmlands through livestock feed, which contains microplastics from small fish that are ground up “whole” into pellets.
So whether it be through the air, land, or sea – you are likely already directly or indirectly ingesting microplastics, and although we know this is a bad thing over the long term….we aren’t sure exactly how bad, yet.
It could be equivocal in importance to the revelation of awareness in America and Western Europe to the dangers of smoking tobacco as well as second smoke.
Or the dangers posed by high Mercury levels in fish, especially for pregnant women.
Or asbestos exposures that directly lead to lung cancer.
Because when we talk about plastic, we aren’t just talking about today or tomorrow’s production and consumption – we are talking about cumulative production since it takes most plastic 400+ years to biodegrade.
Forget about the fact that we globally produce more plastic per year than ever before (According to ourworldindata.com, over 381 million tons of plastic were produced in 2015, compared to 156 million in 1995), we cumulated now have produced over 7.8 billion tons of plastic!
Of the 5.8 billion tons of plastic no longer in use today, only 9% of this cumulative amount has been recycled!
All of this means more direct and indirect exposure for all of us to microplastics over time is inevitable.
We need more conclusive studies on the long-term health effects of direct and direct exposure to microplastics, and we also need to continue to raise awareness on this vital issue.
Because just like secondhand smoke for a bartender in the 70’s, microplastics are now unavoidable.