What Goes Around Comes Around: The Environmental and Health Impacts of Microplastics

What if I told you that you ingest a credit card a week, or a coat-hanger a month?

Author: Priya Ord
Editor: Natalia Sanchez
Artist: Summer Chiuh

What if I told you that you ingest a credit card a week, or a coat-hanger a month?

This sad truth is due to the existence of microplastics.

Microplastics, fragments of plastic less than 5mm in diameter, are ubiquitous. They are classified in two ways: Primary microplastics which are plastic particles made commercially (cosmetics, synthetic textiles etc.) that are already 5mm or less in diameter before entering the environment, and secondary microplastics which arise from the breakdown of larger plastic products (water bottles, plastic bags etc.) after they enter the environment.

It is estimated that the global microplastic total is between 12.5 and 125 trillion particles, 51 trillion of which are in the oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a major plastic accumulation zone found between California and Hawaii, where microplastics make up a staggering 94% of an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the patch.

Microplastics are having a devastating impact on health and the environment. The effects of microplastics can be categorised into physical and chemical effects. Physical effects are related to particle size, shape, and concentration. Chemical effects are related to hazardous chemicals associated with microplastics, such as additives.

Additives are added during production to give plastic qualities like colour and transparency, and to improve the resistance to degradation by ozone, temperature, light radiation, mould and bacteria. They include fillers, plasticisers, UV stabilisers, dyes and flame-retardants.

Microplastics are found everywhere. What impacts are they having on health and the environment?

Animals, both on water and land, regularly ingest microplastics. Through the food chain, the pollutant-rich particles reach our plates and make their way into our bodies.

In animals, microplastics block digestive tracts, limiting the amount of nutritious food that can be eaten. This reduces growth and reproductive success. In aquatic animals, microplastics can interfere with swimming, impairing the animals’ ability to hunt for food, thus decreasing their lifespan.

The potential effects of microplastics on humans have not been researched enough yet. However, some additives of particular concern have been identified such as BPA, heavy metals and flame retardants. It is thought that these could have effects such as skin irritation, inflammation, respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease, digestive problems, reproductive complications, cancer and DNA/cellular damage.

During a study. microplastics were even found in human placentas. 12 pigmented microplastic fragments were found in four placentas (only ~4% of each placenta was analysed). “It is like having a cyborg baby: no longer composed only of human cells, but a mixture of biological and inorganic entities,” said Antonio Ragusa, director of obstetrics and gynaecology at the San Giovanni Calibita Fatebenefratelli hospital in Rome, who led the study. “The mothers were shocked.”

The Good News

Since July 2021, scientists at Plymouth Marine Laboratory have been investigating the use of mussels to filter microplastics. Their experiments showed that a cluster of 300 mussels (5kg) can filter out over 250,000 microplastics per hour without being harmed. The mussels can turn plastic particles into faeces pellets that float to the surface of the water, making them much easier to remove from the sea. Computer modelling has indicated that mussels sited near the mouths of rivers and estuaries could filter between 20-25% of small, waterborne microplastics.

So, what easy steps can YOU take to reduce your plastic waste?

First of all, you can use a reusable coffee cup. In the UK alone, more than 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups are thrown away annually. Less than 1% of these can be recycled. Many coffee companies even offer money off if you use a reusable cup, including Pret a Manger which offers a 50p discount!

Bring a reusable water bottle with you. It is extremely common for discarded single-use bottle lids to be eaten by animals, causing severe digestive issues and even death in some cases.

Plastic straws are unnecessary. Avoid using them, or opt for a recyclable paper straw instead.

Stop using cling film. Instead of using cling film, which is single-use, use foil which is recyclable and can be used multiple times.

It is crucial to understand the wide-reaching negative effects of microplastics on health and the environment so we, as a society, can make the changes that we so desperately need to.

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