Date: 22 October
Cost of taking action: £/$/€ NIL
By our guest author Divya Hari in Singapore
Understanding what happens to plastic when it is discarded is crucial.
Do you know about microplastics and nanoplastics?
Plastic, being cheap and versatile, is pervasively used in packaging, a wide range of applications from toys to medical tools, and devices commonly found in our homes, appliances, cars, aircrafts … everywhere in fact!
However, useful though plastics may be, there is a huge flaw; the virtually indestructible, non-biodegradable material lingers in the environment for years, polluting all the while.
Our recycling rate for plastics on average (globally) is about 9%. Recycling by collecting, sorting and melting plastics is expensive. Also, recycling degrades plastics, so they are not as readily recycled as glass or metals which can be recycled infinitely without losing structural integrity.
Compounding this problem, virgin plastics are cheaper and are of better quality.
Single-use plastics make up more than 40% of plastic (and most isn’t recyclable) produced annually and certainly exacerbates the problem of plastic pollution. Most single use plastics typically have a usage lifespan of mere minutes or hours, then they are put in landfills or find their way to our oceans, breaking down into micro- and nano-particles polluting the land, water and even air.
(Please read our earlier article about a waste thought exercise too … Ed)
Micro- and nano-plastics: big problems from tiny plastics
Primary microplastics are released into the environment directly as small particulates, for example from the use of synthetic fabrics (such as polyester), tires and cosmetics.
Secondary microplastics originate from the degradation of larger pieces of plastic waste into smaller and smaller plastic particles when exposed to weathering elements such as water and sunlight.
Many plastics find their ways into our oceans and are moved around the globe by wind and rain; microplastics are literally raining on our lands, including agricultural soils. It is rather unnerving to think how plastics have permeated our lives and bodies; every nook and cranny on the earth has been tainted by microplastics.
The term microplastic is used generally to refer to particles of plastic up to 5mm across.
The term nanoplastic is used to refer to particles of plastic less than 100nm across. Nanoplastics are even more invasive and insidious.
Microplastics and nanoplastics:
- are found in the deepest ocean trenches
- as well as remotest, highest, “pristine” mountain ranges
- found in fruits and vegetables
- can accumulate in tissues and the intestinal tract
- move up the food chain
Food chains reach humans
As each of us eat, drink (and breathe) these particles, it is unlikely to be benign. The effects of microplastics in humans are still being researched; by the time science catches up and concludes that this is problematic, it may be too late.
Microplastics do carry carcinogenic, endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
Once plastics breakdown into micro- or nano-particles, clean ups can be difficult or even impossible. However, there have been some recent inventions such as microplastic filters (link: https://twitter.com/CurieuxExplorer/status/1411244993340084225) that can be attached to boats to remove some microplastics from water bodies.
Recycling may never keep up with plastic production, and seemingly promising processes involving (for example) bacteria engineered to breakdown plastic to harmless by products are all only small steps to tackle a massive plastic waste problem.
Even limiting single-use plastic may not be good enough. To address the consequences of plastic pollution, it is time to phase it out completely.
How you can minimize your contribution to microplastic pollution
There are some significant steps we can all take:
- Drastically reduce or eliminate plastic from your daily life; avoid as many plastic products as possible especially single-use plastics, glitter, etc.
- Shop local, if possible at zero waste grocery stores, which reduces the amount of plastic packaging used
- Install and use filters or micro-fibre capturing devices. Synthetic fabrics release micro-fibres which are actually microplastics during every wash and dry cycle. There are now capturing filters, bags such as Guppy Friend and devices such as Coraball that catch and trap microplastics.
- Air dry / line dry clothes whenever possible, tumble driers accelerate the shedding of synthetic fibres
- Buy clothes made from natural materials such as cotton, wool, hemp and linen rather those made from polyester, nylon and so on
- Use public transport; car tyres are a major source of microplastic. Friction from the road causes tyres to break down and shed particles; tyre wear particles (TWP) and brake wear particles (BWP), a complex mixture of metal and plastic, and even road marking paint, can all break down to microplastics and end up in our watercourses and then oceans
- Make sure you buy microbeads-free cosmetics and personal care products; steer clear of products containing polyethylene, polystyrene or polypropylene. Many cosmetics contain microplastic particles as scrubbers or fillers and although this has been banned in some countries there is a long way to go to eliminate them
Be aware of microplastics and nanoplastics, and their implications, and please do your bit towards reducing this problem. We can all help.
This article has been contributed by Divya Hari in Singapore
Follow Divya on Twitter at @IvyKriss