Updated: Mar 23
Any piece of plastic which is 5 mm or lesser in any one dimension is called micro plastic.
SECONDARY MICRO PLASTICS AND ITS SOURCES
Made from breaking down of larger plastic objects like fishing nets, plastic water bottles, plastic bags etc., these make a large part of total micro plastics polluting our oceans. Approximately 4.8 to 12.7 million tons of plastic is dumped in the oceans every year. Now imagine this plastic load slowly breaking down by waves, abrasion and sunlight to tiny pieces, likely invisible to naked eyes and covered with toxic chemicals.
You can see a PET bottle floating in the water, you cannot see micro plastics. That’s the problem. Oil spills, runoff from landfills, sewage, industrial waste waters, all pollute the waters and micro plastics act like microscopic adsorption beds for these toxins.
Tough to spot or filter these are even found in table salt. Zooplankton (microscopic marine beings that feed on phytoplankton which make food from sunlight by photosynthesis) mistakenly eat them for food. Other small fish feed on them and are eaten by bigger fish and micro plastics travel with them along the food chain to eventually reach our dinner tables. If you eat about 6 oysters, then you probably are taking in 50 tiny pieces of plastic with it and if mussels are your thing then this number may go up to 178 for every 100 grams.
PRIMARY MICRO PLASTICS AND WHERE THEY COME FROM
It comes from unexpected sources like cosmetics, Tyre abrasion (wearing of automobile Tyre due to friction with the road surface), washing of synthetic clothes, road markings and city dust. Remember how that shower gel or toothpaste shines? Those tiny sparkles that make these products pretty might be little pieces of plastic that might stay in the earths waters for decades after you are done brushing.
Research shows that Tyre account for 13,000 tons of micro plastics found in surface waters of UK annually and clothes washing accounts for 1,600 tons.
HEALTH EFFECTS OF MICRO PLASTIC CONSUMPTION
Most research about ill effects of micro-plastics consumption has been done on marine animals. The results are disturbing, like inflammation of gut, altered feeding behavior, slower growth, lesser number of eggs produced, lesser offspring viability and may also result in population decline over time. Reduced growth is even seen in offspring of parents exposed to micro-plastics. Micro-plastics attract other toxins to their surfaces. These toxins have known adverse effects on humans like endocrine disruption and enhanced fats storage.
Speaking of human health, logical argument is, “Micro-plastics are in the guts of these fish and in many cases the guts are removed before we consume them”. That’s where nano-plastics arise as plan B of this ubiquitous problem. Micro-plastics breakdown further to particles even smaller in size and more chemically reactive in nature called “nano-plastics.” These can penetrate the cell membranes and move into tissues. Technological advances in the field of research are not enough to study their presence or health effects. Studies are underway and nano-plastics too have shown adverse health effects on fish.
THEY ARE IN THE AIR TOO
Micro-plastics are present in the air around us. Concentration of micro-plastics is higher in indoor environments as compared to outdoors. They originate from synthetic fabrics like clothes and curtains, fleece jackets, sofas, carpets etc. These particles also accumulate other pollutants onto their surfaces making them even more hazardous to health. They make way to our lungs and to our guts by settling on our food. Research indicates we might be eating 114 tiny pieces of potentially hazardous plastic per meal. The number of micro-plastics we can ingest through household dust is much higher than what we may consume by eating mussels.
EXTENT OF MICRO-PLASTIC POLLUTION
These tiny pieces have reached places which are hard for even humans to reach. A 2018 study by Greenpeace shows that micro-plastics are found in pristine habitats of Antarctica. Out of eight samples collected at 4 different locations in Antarctic waters, seven samples contained micro-plastics.
Micro plastics are found in huge numbers at the deepest point on ocean bed called the Challenger Deep. They are affecting the most fragile ecosystems as they gather in trenches like fragments of food get collected in the middle of a kitchen sink. Our trash is reaching almost every point on earth where wind and water can take it.
WAYS WE CAN CUT DOWN ON MICRO-PLASTICS
A single shower can add about 100,000 plastic particles to the sewage system. Read the labels when you buy bath and body products. If you find words and abbreviations like PET, PTFE, PMMA, polyethylene, polypropylene, polymethylmethacrylate or nylon then use your hard-earned money for better things. Do not forget that not only the visible beads of plastics in scrubs, but the teeny tiny sparkles in cosmetics can also be micro-plastics.
There are ample DIYs to exfoliate naturally from things you might already have in our kitchen.
Washing synthetic clothes
Products like Guppyfriend Washing Bag claim to minimize synthetic microfiber release. Guppyfriend bags trap synthetic micro-plastics and stops them from washing down the drain.
Countries like the US, Canada, UK, New Zealand, Taiwan, Italy, India and Sweden have either banned the manufacture and import of products containing micro-beads or are planning to do so. Countries who haven’t should follow suite and ban all types of micro-plastics.
Public demand for plastic free products can create a shift in these markets. Do not hesitate to write a quick email to the manufacturer and register your disapproval for products containing micro-plastics.
Do not let plastic products escape the waste cycle and reach the oceans. Dump your waste responsibly.