How an incredible invention from the 19th century is slowly tying a knot around our necks
Plastic has been with us for a while, from its early conceptualisation in the 19th century to its mass production stage in the 1950s. It has dramatically transformed our daily lives, permeating every aspect with its versatility and convenience. From the moment we wake up, plastic is present in toothbrushes, shampoo bottles, and shower curtains. It keeps our lunch fresh in plastic containers and allows us to grab a quick coffee on the way to work with disposable cups. Everyday transportation has been transformed by incorporating lightweight components into cars, buses, and airplanes. In the realm of technology, plastic plays a vital role, enhancing the portability and accessibility of devices like smartphones and laptops. However, there's a darker side that we can't ignore. Despite their usefulness, plastics have become a serious threat to our environment. Every time we throw away a plastic bag or bottle that can't be recycled, we're contributing to a dangerous problem…
An (In)visible problem of microplastics
While the image of "plastic islands" floating in the oceans may be familiar to many of us, what is happening beneath the surface should be of far greater concern. These “islands” serve as one of the sources of microplastics in the oceans, contributing to the pervasive contamination of marine ecosystems. Unlike a full-size product made of plastic that we are able to visually identify, a microplastic by definition has a diameter of less than 5mm. Thus, it shouldn't be a surprise that many marine organisms easily mistake it for food, and once ingested, it moves up the food chain, eventually ending up on your plate. According to Plastic Soup Foundation:
"It is estimated that 171 trillion microplastic particles were floating in the ocean in 2019"
It's not only oceans…
Our ground is also polluted with microplastics, and the implications for farmland are particularly concerning. As microplastics find their way into soil through various sources, including the degradation of plastic waste and the use of plastic-based agricultural products, they pose a significant threat to agricultural ecosystems. Scientists from Cardiff University and the University of Manchester estimate that:
"Between 31,000 and 42,000 tonnes of microplastics (or 86 – 710 trillion microplastic particles) are applied to European soils annually, mirroring the concentration of microplastics found in ocean surface waters"
These tiny particles have the potential to disrupt soil fertility, nutrient cycling, and water retention. Furthermore, microplastics can be ingested by soil-dwelling organisms and inadvertently enter the food chain, raising potential risks for both ecosystem health and human consumption.
Scientists have discovered that substances used to enhance plastics, such as Bisphenol A (BPA) or phthalates, can have detrimental effects on human health. The first one has been linked to developmental effects in children, as well as problems with reproductive systems and metabolism in adults. While phthalates are associated with adverse effects on fetal development, reproductive problems, obesity, and insulin resistance.
What can you do?
First and foremost, an effective way to combat microplastic pollution is by reducing our plastic consumption, particularly when it comes to single-use plastics. While completely eliminating plastic from our lives may seem daunting, responsible recycling plays a vital role in ensuring proper disposal and minimizing its negative impact. Additionally, making conscious choices like avoiding synthetic clothing and embracing eco-friendly alternatives can greatly reduce the release of microfibers into the environment.
Engaging in community clean-up initiatives and actively advocating for change are equally important steps in the fight against microplastic pollution. Together, let's raise awareness about the impact of microplastics and inspire others to join the journey towards a plastic-free future. Embrace these small changes and become a catalyst for positive change in our world.