When it comes to plastic, one word that’s been making headlines around the world is “microplastic.” However, this term has been associated with negativity and harm even before conclusive evidence was found. In reality, studies have shown mixed results regarding the impact of microplastics on human health and the environment.
In our latest article of the Myth-Buster series, we’ll delve into the technicality related to microplastics. Join us for an informative read that will shed light on this controversial topic. So, take a seat, relax, and get ready to expand your knowledge!
If you take a look at your surroundings, the amount of plastic you see will surprise you—it is everywhere! Since the discovery of plastic in the 1950s, plastic usage has consistently been increasing. Plastic has become an integral part of everyone’s everyday life. Plastic has improved our lifestyle, but it comes with its own set of issues to consider. One of the biggest challenges with plastic is managing it after it is discarded. Due to the lack of management, plastic is often left unattended, and with time, this plastic starts breaking down to microplastic.
At the moment, there are 500 times more microplastics in the world than there are stars in our galaxy. Every year, nearly 400 million tonnes of plastics are produced, and by 2050, this volume is expected to double. Around two-thirds of all plastic ever manufactured is still present in the environment today. With most of it in the form of microplastics, contaminating the atmosphere, soil, and rainwater, it is a problem that needs to be addressed.
What are microplastics, and where do they originate?
Microplastics are small fragments of plastic that measure less than 5mm (0.2 inches) in size. These fragments of plastic come from larger pieces of plastic that have been broken down due to environmental factors such as sunlight, wind, and wave action.
Microplastics can originate from two groups: Primary and Secondary
Primary microplastic is usually plastic that is intentionally manufactured to be small. Like threads in toothbrushes, body scrubs, fishing nets, a few textile products, abrasion of tyres through driving, etc.
Whereas, Secondary microplastic is the plastic that is produced when bigger plastic objects, such as water bottles, plastic bags, etc break down. Usually, the sun’s rays and ocean waves are the key environmental variables contributing to this disintegration.
According to estimates from the European Parliament, secondary microplastics contribute 69% to 81% of microplastic found in the ocean.
Majority of these particles are impossible for scientists to even see due to their size, ascertaining that the issue will only worsen. Even if all plastic production were to cease tomorrow, the estimated 5 billion tonnes of existing plastics in landfills and the environment would continue to break down into minute pieces that are impossible to collect or clean up, steadily increasing the amount of microplastics in the environment.
Scientists have discovered the presence of microplastics everywhere: in the deep oceans, in the snow and ice of the Arctic and Antarctic, in shellfish, table salt, drinking water, and drifting through the air or even in the rain falling over mountains and cities. It might take decades or longer for these small pieces to completely deteriorate. In almost all species, there is a level of exposure to microplastics.
Why is microplastic harmful?
Researchers have posed several hypotheses on how microplastics might be harmful. Intermittently, they enter the food chain when animals mistake them for food and ingest them. Microplastics can also absorb toxic chemicals from the water, releasing those toxins when consumed. They also cause physical damage to animals that ingest them, as they can block digestive pathways and carry pathogens and parasites. Additionally, they can accumulate in the environment, with larger pieces breaking down into ever-smaller pieces that contaminate the surrounding environment.
Are microplastics in food and water dangerous to your health?
Currently, insufficient research has been completed to provide a definitive answer on whether microplastics in food and water pose a serious health risk. There is evidence that microplastic particles have been found in human organs after ingestion, but the long-term health effects of these particles are not yet known. It is possible that microplastics could be absorbed by the body and accumulate in organs, leading to health problems. However, further research is needed to better understand the potential health risks associated with consuming microplastics.
Research on microplastic and its effect on humans and animals:
Presently, research has been conducted by either testing on animal models like mice or rats or in laboratory trials that expose cells or human tissues to microplastics. For example, in one study, mice fed a lot of microplastics displayed inflammation in their small intestines. In another study, mice exposed to microplastics had lower sperm counts and fewer, smaller pups than control groups.
Microplastic exposure in humans has been linked to oxidative stress, DNA damage, and inflammation, among other health issues, according to research. Inflammation can lead to very serious health issues, especially when it becomes chronic. However, microplastics in the environment are also home to microorganisms, including some that have been recognised as human pathogens.
How can we fight against microplastics?
For now, we do not have enough information about how microplastic is affecting humans but it can become a problem if we do not address it right now. Plastic is a huge part of our life and going back in time is not an option. The only way to move forward is to find a way to thrive with it by ensuring that it gets recycled and discarded properly. Small changes in the lifestyles of each individual by reducing the consumption of single-use plastics, and by supporting organizations actively fighting for plastic pollution solutions– these make all the difference.
In a broader sense, using biodegradable plastic additives are those sustainable solutions putting us on the path to thriving with plastic. These can help ensure that plastic is used the way it is while keeping the environment in mind. They help accelerate the degradation process. They are not only compatible with the majority of polymers but also non-toxic, safe for humans, and quickly dissolve into the soil ensuring zero microplastic is left behind.
Polymer as well as phenomena such as waste-to-energy and feedstock are the answer, for which information among the public is very scarce. Waste-to-energy, fundamentally, is the production of fuel and energy from waste, whereas the reformulation of plastic into feedstock could prove to reduce and recycle plastic waste, sustainably. These, when implemented, could serve as an immense advantage to the health of the environment. It is a step in the right direction, propelling forward the vision of a well-managed and healthy earth.
Long-standing Specialty Chemicals player with ISO 9001:2015 certification and a history of providing specialty solutions for over 25 years. The company is headed by senior chemical industry specialists with the combined expertise of more than 100 years. With an emphasis on eco-friendly, non-toxic products, the company’s primary strength is research, development, and customization. More information on NICHEM can be found at https://nichem.solutions.