Microplastics ー Our Manufactured Problem | campus.sg

by Valery Thong

Most of us have probably heard of plastic pollution but might be unfamiliar with the word “microplastics”. A microplastic is a piece of plastic debris smaller than five millimetres, and many are only visible under a microscope.

Plastic has become such an integral part of our lives that about 8.3 billion metric tons have been produced since its invention. Only an estimated 9% are being recycled. The majority accounting for almost 6.3 billion metric tons end up as waste, piling up in landfills and around us as litter.

Plastic can take 20 to 1,000 years to break down. For instance, most plastic bottles take 450 years or more to degrade. The scariest part of them all? They do not completely “go away” as you wish. They are only broken down into smaller and smaller pieces until you get microplastics.

Microplastics are everywhere

It is no longer news that our oceans are drowning in plastic waste. Sea creatures, such as fish and turtles, often confuse plastic (that we have discarded thoughtlessly) for food, thus bringing plastic into the food chain.

Microbeads found in facial scrubs typically 1mm in size or smaller, can evade wastewater treatment filters and escape into the sea. Shellfish such as mussels and shrimps are natural filter feeders, potentially missing the microbeads even with their natural filter structures as they extract food particles from the water.

Microplastics in your body

It’s no surprise that most microplastics are ingested. According to The New York Times, a study found different types of microplastics in the stool samples of individuals from Austria, Britain, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Russia, Poland and Finland. It is almost ironic that the plastic we fed the ocean unconsciously, is feeding back to us as we indirectly ingest them in our diets. Even 1g of sea salt can contain over 600 microplastics.

It’s not just seafood that contain microplastics. Scientist have also found microplastics in land animals (like chicken), as well as in honeyand beer. It’s also found in the water we drink – whether it’s tap or bottled water.

Other research have also shown that microplastics can be found in the air we breathe. Since they are extremely light, microplastics may settle in the form of dust to be carried away by the wind, or travel across the ocean from one country to another. A recent study estimated that we could get an annual dose of almost 70,000 microplastics from indoor dust, which can settle on the food we eat.

Perhaps the next time you are brooding over which fad diets to choose from, consider adding a plastic-free diet into your list of options.

How do these microplastics come about?

Plastic is manufactured out of our desire for convenience while serving functional purposes. Polystyrene and polyethylene are the most commonly found microplastics, which are widely used in single-use packaging and plastic bags. Apart from single-use plastic items, plastic bags and plastic packaging, there are many other sources of microplastics – from microbeads in facial scrubs and body washes, to toothbrush bristle and fishing gear.

Another surprising culprit of microplastics might just be your favourite t-shirt. Many of our clothes today are made of synthetic materials that contain plastics. Some of the materials include polyester, nylon, polyamide and acrylic. Every time you place them into the washing machine, millions of microplastic fibres are being shed. They are so tiny that eventually, are drained out and end up at places that harm innocent wildlife animals. The next time you are shopping for clothes, take a look at the label.

What can be done to mitigate the microplastics problem?

Plastic use has become so convenient and comfortable, almost like an addiction, that removing it entirely from our lifestyle today can be extremely difficult. It is also almost impossible to try to reduce contact with microplastics given that they are everywhere in our environment.

I am not saying that we must go plastic-free from now on but for starters, we can be more conscious of the way we use and discard plastics –  all of us can help mitigate this toxic problem of plastic pollution. Here are some small changes that you can take today:

1. Reduce single-use plastics in your lifestyle: Think twice before using or purchasing unnecessary single-use plastics. Look out for plastic-free packaging the next time you are shopping!

2. Dispose responsibly:  Throw waste into trash bins so that they do not end up on the streets, preventing animals such as birds from ingesting them.

3. Sort and recycle your waste: Sort your waste according to paper, plastic, glass and metal waste. Ensure that they are not contaminated with food and liquids to increase recycling rates.

4. Spread the word and be supportive: Participate in a beach clean up and tell your friends to join you. Learn more about the efforts that others have taken to reduce plastic use in their lifestyles. If you are already actively reducing plastic use, strike up a conversation with your friend or colleague about reusable options. You never know you might just influence them!