Diving Into Water Contaminants: MicroplasticsWater
The image of a beach littered with plastic is unfortunately not a new one.
It’s one that highlights how ubiquitous plastic is on our planet and notably points to plastic’s pervasive counterpart: microplastics.
Microplastics seem to be everywhere, literally swimming in our water, food – and even cropping up in the air we breathe. The enormous amount of plastics we’re consuming has even encouraged a rise in biodegradable plastic as a potentially better alternative.
Yet every year, around 11 million tons of plastic flows into our oceans from land – a statistic expected to rise to 29 million tons, if no proper action is taken. With the myriad ways in which we, unknowingly or not, contribute to the circulation of microplastics, and with the increasingly new ways we depend on plastics – most recently with face masks – its legacy and subsequent health effects seem to be sticking around for the foreseeable future.
What We Know
Microplastics are the degradation of larger plastics and fibers. We gave an overview of how this threat began, outlining how plastic bottles break down into microplastics and how fibers from clothes and microbeads in cosmetics contribute.
As these are synthetic in material, the durability of plastics means they take years to degrade. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it takes a plastic bottle 450 years to biodegrade, which is also the same amount of time a synthetic diaper takes. And as these sources degrade, they become micro, cropping up in the ocean – and in 12% of freshwater fish in the United States, as the US Geological Survey emphasises.
How They Enter Our Water Systems
The two main sources of microplastics in water systems are land run-off sources and wastewater (both treated and untreated) overflow.
Run-off from land includes examples like landfills, the breakdown of road-marking paints, abrasion of products like footwear or artificial turf, and agricultural run-off, especially agricultural plastic.
Wastewater overflow includes fibers released when washing synthetic clothes, fragments from products flushed down the toilet such as wet wipes or sanitary pads, atmospheric pollution, and everyday tasks like clothes drying on a washing line.
For drinking water, the ability for wastewater and drinking-water treatment plants to remove microplastics is pretty much dependent on the specific extraction methods. There are some that can remove 99% and others where effective methods like these are simply not implemented. What’s certain is that no method is guaranteed: microplastics have actually been found in 83% of tap water samples from major cities. And in 259 bottled water brands, 93% of samples contained synthetic polymer particles (microplastics).
What’s striking is that even if ocean plastic waste was put to an end by 2020, macroplastics would still persist in our surface waters for many more decades. Single-use plastics like straws and bags are also just one of many ways in which microplastics can be created and circulated: microplastics are perhaps more ingrained in our daily habits than we thought – the consequence of which means we almost unanimously contribute to its spread whilst also changing the climate’s very own rhythm.
“Tires alone transport a yearly rate of 100,000 metric tons of microplastics through the air.”
What We Might Not Know
While microplastics do largely break down from sources like plastic bottles and fibers from washing machines, recent research highlights how pervasive other sources are – particularly in daily routines.
For example, atmospheric transport from driving is a major player in the moving of microplastics across the world, a new study reveals. The wear and tear of tires alone transports a yearly rate of 100,000 metric tons of microplastics through the air. An additional 40,000 tons come from brakes, as brake linings consist of a number of materials including binders, fibers, fillers and lubricants.
They are particularly good at sticking around in the air we breathe, with the smallest particles staying airborne for an average of 18 to 37 days. Larger particles also create hotspots of microplastics near the roads they are released from – and 57% of the smaller particles end up travelling into the ocean.
“There was so much microplastic, we calculated that up to 6 percent of the dusts in those far-flung locations are microplastics (…) This waste has become so ubiquitous that it’s now in the air we breathe.”
– Biogeochemist Dr. Brahney.
Cigarette butts are another major plastic pollution contributor that are largely forgotten about. As the most littered item on the planet, 4.5 trillion butts are discarded and littered every year. And despite being composed of a biodegradable fiber called cellulose acetate fiber, this actually takes years to disappear from the environment.
The same can be said for biodegradable plastic in general. Only degradable to a degree, for biodegradable plastics to truly break down fully, they must get special treatment to do so. Some biodegradable plastic bags have even been found to be sticking around and fully intact three years after being exposed to the environment.
What’s more, they’re made with the same materials as conventional petroleum based plastics, but with additional chemicals to aid in them breaking down faster. When leaked into the environment as litter, they can be just as harmful as typical plastics.
For bio-based plastics – plastics derived from renewable sources rather than fossil fuels – while they produce less harmful emissions during production, they cannot be composted or recycled. The prospect of leaving a microplastic trail therefore seems almost inevitable.
Varied Plastics, Varied Health Effects
We know you don’t need to be a fish eater to ingest microplastics, so what does our invariable intake mean for our health?
For one, it depends on whether plastic can make its journey to your organs, which depends on its size, shape, type and a myriad of other characteristics.
Plastic isn’t made up of just one component. It comes in many forms and contains a range of additives including pigments, ultraviolet stabilizers, flame retardants, softeners called phthalates, and BPA. Some of these are considered chemicals that interfere with normal hormone function and contribute to weight gain.
The way each piece of plastic breaks down depends on the physical or chemical processes involved: maybe they’re eaten by animals along the food chain or maybe some have started to degrade faster because of their oxygen and light exposure.
Toxicity also depends on the dose of microplastics we’ve ingested, although there are some more clear cut effects for certain plastic components: flame retardants are said to potentially interfere with brain development in fetuses and childrens. And other compounds in plastics are said to cause cancer or birth defects.
“Microplastics can be found in 114 aquatic species, and more than half of those end up on our dinner plates.”
Nanoplastic: The New Microplastic
If the microplastic is small enough, it could spread to other organs, potentially causing inflammation or leached chemicals. Animals have already shown this can happen as some plastics have managed to pass from the gastrointestinal tract or airway into the blood or lymphatic system, and then to other organs.
There’s also a rise in nanoplastics, which measure less than 100 billionths of a meter – more or less invisible. And these can penetrate cells as well as move into tissues and organs. When it comes to inhaled plastics, they can produce inflammation and lesions in the lungs. Repeated exposure is considered to potentially trigger respiratory problems like asthma and cancer.
And as researchist Steve Allen states, “It is hard to imagine a sentence starting with: ‘The health benefits of breathing airborne microplastic…’”
Our Microplastics Legacy
Modern lifestyles have prompted governments to take some form of action against plastic pollution. In Germany, single-use plastics like straws and cutlery are getting banned by 2021, and China has revealed plans to reduce their contribution by 2025, committing to banning bags and other items.
Yet its legacy is very much a strong one, that in some cases, ironically relies on the environment to be sustained.
A recent study discovered the ocean as playing a crucial role in storing and spreading microplastics in the ocean. It was revealed that the largest amount of microplastics are found on the ocean seafloor: up to 1.9 million pieces were found in just one square meter area. These seafloor microplastic hotspots are made up of fibers from textiles and clothing that are not effectively filtered out in domestic wastewater treatment plants. The ripple effects of which are ongoing: the sea current hotspots can house and therefore harm important ecosystems.
In the Arctic, microplastics within sea ice are said to potentially impact the processes occurring in sea ice and how it regulates its absorption of solar radiation. Which ultimately could affect the entire base of the Arctic food web.
As of yet, microplastics don’t seem to be going away, exacerbated by new ways in which we depend on plastic – most recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, where even paper masks have been reported to distribute microplastics. A study by the University of College London’s Plastic Waste innovation Hub recently found that if 68 million residents of Britain wore one disposable mask every day for a year, it would amount to around 73,000 tons of plastic waste.
What’s clear is the microplastic legacy very much depends not only on our current plastic production, but also on an awareness of how we contribute daily to circulating its spread through an activity as habitual as driving a car.
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