Microplastics in the Environment
By Meg Paskal
As the world’s production and consumption of single use plastic grows, researchers are increasingly discovering Microplastics in soil and water samples from remote locations around the world. These areas are far removed from industrialized city centers and previously assumed to be unaffected by the effects of human industrialization. Microplastics are classifieds as plastic debris less than 5 mm in size (about the size of a sesame seed). Due to the rigid nature of plastics, most types will not
decompose. They instead degrade into smaller, lighter pieces. The light weight of the debris allows for it to be easily swept up into high elevation atmospheric currents that transport the Microplastic ‘dust’ around the world. It is estimated that 11 billion metric tons of microplastics will accumulate in the environment by 2025.
Most plastic particles can be linked back to industrial manufacturing of commonly used items such as packaging materials, plastic pellets and polymer based protective coatings. Plastics are an integral part of modern-day life. The ease of use due to plastic products has now become a requirement in developing nations as they race to catch up with the rest of the world. Growing populations are increasingly incorporating plastic goods into daily life that previously were made from glass and other recyclable compounds. To compound the problem, worldwide the value of recycled products has decreased dramatically. It is becoming more cost effective for industries to purchase virgin plastics which are less expensive and are more durable.
Another concerning development is the growing awareness by researchers of the widespread concentrations of airborne microplastic fibers in the indoor environment. Indoor microplastics result from the fragmentation through heat, or light of the multitude of plastic objects commonly found in modern day households. The inevitable breakdown of synthetic furniture materials and synthetic carpeting results in the dispersal of plastic microfibers into the air. Studies show that the increase use of synthetic materials such as nylons and polyesters in clothing, when laundered, shed microfibers into the laundry wastewater as well as the dryer venting system. Most municipal wastewater treatment facilities do not have filters to remove the fibers and microplastics from the treated water.
The effects of microplastics and microfibers on humans is in the early stages of research. The presence of plastic micro particles has been discovered in human lungs. Studies are ongoing as to what additional adverse effects may impact the other major organs of the human body.
Although plastics are an important part of our daily lives, it does not mean we cannot make a concerted effort to reduce our individual footprint. A few examples of actions that can help reduce microplastics in the environment are:
• Air Dry athletic wear and polar fleece items instead of heat drying.
• Switch to facial scrubs and soaps without micro beads.
• Ensure all disposable contact lenses are disposed in the trash, not sinks.