The microplastics threat and what we’re doing about it
A study published by Orb media, a non profit journalism organization based in Washington, D.C., in the last quarter of 2017 revealed that 83% of tap water samples collected around the globe contained microplastics. The highest rate was found in the US with 94% at sites including Congress buildings, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters and Trump Tower in New York. European nations including the UK, Germany, and France were not spared either. They had the lowest contamination rate, but it was still 72%.
A new research by the same organization shows that a single bottle of bottled water, marketed as the very essence of purity, can hold dozens or possibly even thousands of microscopic plastic particles. Tests on more than 250 bottles from 11 brands reveal contamination with plastic including polypropylene, nylon, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
For plastic particles in the 100 micron, or 0.10 millimeter size range, tests conducted for Orb at the State University of New York revealed a global average of 10.4 plastic particles per liter. These particles were confirmed as plastic using an industry standard infrared microscope.
The tests also showed a much greater number of even smaller particles that researchers said are also likely plastic. The global average for these particles was 314.6 per liter.
How microplastics are formed
Microplastics – which range in size from 5 mm to 10 nanometres – come from a number of sources. These tiny pieces of plastic are too small to be filtered out of our wastewater systems, and huge quantities end up in the sea.
Degradation of plastic waste
Plastic debris (such as fishing gear, buoys, domestic and industrial waste) in the ocean slowly breaks down into microplastic particles due to UX exposure, potentially leaching toxic chemical additives – PCBs, pesticides, flame retardants – put there by manufacturers.
Fibres from clothes
Another common source of microplastic is clothing made from synthetic fibres. Tiny fibres of polyester and acrylic (both a type of plastic) are shed when the clothing is washed. Wastewater treatment facilities are often unable to remove the small fibres, allowing them to reach the ocean.
Nurdles are raw plastic pellets shipped around the world for manufacturing, easily lost during transportation. In 2012 a typhoon spilled millions from a ship in Hong Kong.
Microbeads are plastic particles that are about about a millimetre in diameter. They are added to products such as face scrubs, toothpastes and shower gels to increase their abrasive and cleaning ability. Many governments, including the UK’s, have moved to ban them.
Microplastics everywhere – the onset of a macroproblem
With the widespread microplastic contamination, the question is no longer: are we drinking in plastic with our water? What scientists are urgently trying to establish is just how bad for us that is.
What is alarming is that tap or bottled mineral water are not the only sources for plastics to enter our food chain. Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium recently calculated that shellfish lovers are eating up to 11,000 plastic fragments in their seafood each year. Contaminated fish and shellfish have been found everywhere from Europe, Canada and Brazil to the coast of mainland China – and plastic-eating fish are now showing up in supermarkets. One third of the fish caught in the UK contains microplastics.
According to an United Nations Environment Project report, “The presence of microplastic in foodstuffs could potentially increase direct exposure of plastic-associated chemicals to humans and may present an attributable risk to human health.”
Scientists fear that chemicals in plastics and also chemicals which attach themselves to plastic in the natural environment could cause poisoning, infertility and genetic disruption in marine life, and potentially in humans if ingested in high quantities.
Last year, the European Food Safety Authority called for urgent research, citing increasing concern for human health and food safety “given the potential for microplastic pollution in edible tissues of commercial fish”.
Currently, little is known about the effects of microplastics on humans. Although microplastics and human health is an emerging field, complementary existing fields indicate potential particle, chemical and microbial hazards. If inhaled or ingested, microplastics may accumulate and exert localized particle toxicity by inducing or enhancing an immune response. Chemical toxicity could occur due to the localized leaching of component monomers, endogenous additives, and adsorbed environmental pollutants. Chronic exposure is anticipated to be of greater concern due to the accumulative effect that could occur.
Corresponding long-term studies on the consequences of accumulating microplastics in the body have yet been done, but one thing is for sure: The phenomena is definitely undesirable. The smaller the particles, the greater the risk of it accumulating and penetrating into body tissues on a daily basis, leading to unwanted effects in the long term.
Emergence of a solution: The circular economy
Single-use plastic bottles are the biggest source of plastic waste. A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and the number will jump another 20% by 2021, creating an environment crisis some campaigners predict will be as serious as climate change.
The idea of the circular economy is taking hold, as there is now broad agreement that our industry needs to move towards products that maximize recycling and reuse. Perhaps the shock of finding plastics returning to us in our drinking water is bringing bring that message home.
Recently, the European Union made a crucial step towards creating a plastic-free planet with its announcement on transitioning towards a more circular economy. This added political pressure by the EU is an important resource in ensuring a sustainable future for us all.
Plastics are abundant today. In many parts of the world, they are ubiquitous. The creation of a plastic or a substitute that has many applications and is also safe for the environment is a challenge. Nevertheless, the effort is important.
At Mitte, we believe that we have a shared responsibility to preserve a viable environment for ourselves and future generations. Unfortunately, we are already consuming the wasteful by-products of our industry. Besides finding our tap water contaminated, these plastic fibers also exist in the air that we breathe and seafood that we consume.
Our team nips this issue in the bud with our mission to improve lives with sustainable and innovative technology. Mitte has built first of its kind smart water system that enables users to turn tap water into purified and personalized mineralized water right in their homes. Its proprietary distillation technology purifies water, removing all contaminants including pharmaceuticals, microplastics, nitrates, and enhances it with essential minerals to create healthy water* for drinking. Through providing safe and healthy water* for users at home, Mitte’s product curbs plastic waste by eliminating the need for bottled water completely.
We are at the edge of a major ecological disaster. Microplastics in our food and water is an illustration of that. This is a sign for us to take urgent action, and we are at the forefront of this change.