Micro Plastic Negligence
Many of us fantasize about taking vacations to the beach, going camping, going on hikes, enjoying the snow, or traveling the world. While it's true that our Earth brings us such fantastic experiences through nature; visiting such places might not be possible once we, humans, have polluted and destroyed them. How many beaches, lakes, rivers, and landscapes have become inaccessible or ruined because of some sort of pollution? Micro plastics have become a great concern over recent years because we are at the point where the plastic has become a problem for humanity and our biome. Due to the very nature of the unavoidable formation of micro plastic, cleaning up this type of pollution is difficult. In the short term we mainly experience the issue of lack of discipline with waste management and a lack of a public understanding of micro plastic pollution. While in the long term we are creating large problems for future generations, because there isn’t a patch of land, a drop of water, or a breath of air that is completely free of micro plastic. Overtime, as these plastics break down, the plastics are harming our environment and are detrimental to our earth’s biodiversity by finding their ways into the food chain. This also means that these plastics are finding their way into our bodies and are causing harm to our biology. Considering the nature of micro plastic pollution, we need to holistically solve this problem by making behavioral changes in our own homes and by pursuing further innovations.
Micro plastics might not seem like an issue because they are invisible to the naked eye, but they are created every time plastic breaks down. Essentially what happens is that any and every plastic eventually slowly becomes smaller pieces of itself and the other chemicals mixed into the plastic separate themselves. This happens fairly frequently as illustrated by Sherri Mason, a chemist that specializes in plastic pollution in freshwater systems at Penn State Behrend. In her report in the publication American Scientist titled, “Plastics, Plastics Everywhere,” she states, “On an average day most of us take a shower and brush our teeth. Many of us use an exfoliating face wash, shampoo, or body wash. Before 2018, many of these products contained microbeads, small, round beads of plastic. As the products are used, these microbeads are flushed down the drain with the wastewater. In an average week most of us also do laundry. As we clean our clothing, sheets, and towels, tiny threads—commonly called microfibers—break off and wash away”. In other words, our everyday activities create micro plastic pollution, because micro plastics are used in everyday items. This means that slowly, overtime plastic is making its way into our ecosystem. In the same paper she goes on with, “Wastewater treatment plants were built to remove urine, fecal matter, nutrients, and microbes, which are known to have negative impacts on the environment and the organisms that rely on that water: They weren’t designed to remove plastics.”. Currently, our infrastructure isn’t designed to handle removing these plastics in our water treatment plants. This can lead to issues with plastics and chemicals used with plastic leeching their way into our water supply and into the food chain.
Starting with the bottom of the food chain, small organisms can not and do not differentiate plastic with food. In the journal titled, "Microplastics stunt growth of worms -- study,” academics from Anglia Ruskin University examined the impact of different types of micro plastics in a small controlled ecosystem with water, soil, worms, and seeds. The academics not only found that the presence of micro plastics led to stunted earth worm growth and fewer seeds germinating, but have also found that the plastics were obstructing and irritating the worms’ digestive tracts and limiting the absorption of nutrients and reducing growth to both the plants and the worms. This means that these plastics are physically blocking these organisms from performing their natural processes and are thus making life challenging for all the organisms above them in the food chain. Effectively we are poisoning our own food supply and water supply while also creating more scarcity since micro plastics aren’t digestible and pass up the food chain. We are only beginning to understand how unsustainable plastic are, so we should continue with caution as these plastics make it up the food chain all the way to us. The ubiquity of micro plastics in our food chain was examined by Philipp Schwabl, a doctor at the Medical University of Vienna. In his research report titled, ”Detection of Various Microplastics in Human Stool: A Prospective Case Series,” Schwabl found micro plastics present in the stool of every volunteer in the study. This means that small bits of plastic are in all of us and while research hasn’t found issues with plastic, itself, causing harm to us, there are studies that show chemicals blended into plastics are causing us harm. For example, BPA, a chemical used in water bottles and food containers to make plastic clear and flexible, causes problems with growth, metabolism, behavior, fertility, and cancer. Although, this type of harm is not intended by the producer of the product, failure to properly dispose of these plastics is leading to chemical and physical contamination. Since we can not digest plastic, this means that our current habits are not sustainable for our environment and for ourselves.
The casual overlooking of micro plastic can no longer happen if we hope to continue as a species. Therefore, we need to reduce current micro plastics and we need to release less micro plastics. Rosanna Xia summarizes the most commonly found micro plastics in a study of the water in the San Francisco Bay Area in the article, “The biggest likely source of microplastics in California coastal waters? Our car tires” she lists that tire rubber, clothes fibers, and microbeads as the largest offenders. This means that our everyday human life is having this negative impact anywhere there is human activity. As a society we can holistically reduce the amount of micro plastic in our environment through further innovation at home and in the field. A solution our cities could consider is removing micro plastics at water treatment plants. The main downsides being cost and time. Another solution the plastic industry should consider is to create plastic that decomposes similarly to natural materials. This would mean that existing organisms would naturally process the plastic while experiencing no harm. Well, these plastics already exist as biodegradable and compostable plastics. Biodegradable plastics and compostable plastics can not benefit everybody, as they require infrastructure to process and also require informing the public of how to properly dispose of these materials. As stated in the video, “Plastic Pollution: How Humans are Turning the World into Plastic” , by Kurzgesagt, these materials don’t decompose in a landfill due to the lack of oxygen in the landfill environment. This means that we need to educate and equip the whole population with proper composting and disposal of these types of products otherwise, they’re just as harmful as everything else in a landfill. Also, biodegradable and compostable products are more costly than plastic counterparts and thus aren’t as profitable at scale. So, plastic might as well be used in the first place.
Since these innovations might not be able to help everybody, mainly due to the lack of access to proper infrastructure and high costs, more work must be done. In the industry, plastic has been used as a light, cheap, durable, and strong material. We shouldn’t stop using plastic, because in many cases switching back to natural materials leads to more emissions. Therefore, we shouldn’t eradicate plastic, but rather, we should be more responsible with our production of plastic. With our current economy, plastic will be produced as long as the consumer demands it, therefore we as consumers must make some changes with our consumption habits. This is easily done by rejecting single-use plastic on the principle that it requires a lot of resources to produce for an incredibly short life span. Rejecting single-use plastics may be challenging in the beginning, but the point is not to move to living like a pilgrim, the point is to look for alternatives and to use what you already have. Basically, the point is to create good habits and to not forget old ones such as reduce, reuse, recycle. Another benefit to consumers making more informed decision and rejecting plastic when they can is that now consumers can hold companies accountable for the waste their product makes. Think of all the extra packaging that is taken home when something is bought in store or online and then simply thrown away as soon as the product get to the consumer’s home.
Speaking for myself in my personal life, I will make these personal changes and support innovations where I can. A few months ago, I participated in a creek clean up event in my neighborhood that I found on Facebook. I did this, because I realized that I should be doing something to help clean up in addition to reducing my own impact. Also, there is the benefit of reducing the source of micro plastics. As an engineer, I will be careful when considering plastic for my designs. Perhaps in the future, I work in solving this issue with large scale clean ups or by making the aforementioned solutions more accessible to everybody.
It may not be feasible to eradicate micro plastics from our earth, but we can reduce our own impact and improve current infrastructure to clean our act up. Sure, we do give up the convenience of single-use utensils and single-use water bottles, but we gain a more sustainable future by becoming less wasteful. In addition, we also gain better health for our environment and for ourselves as we reduce and clean up our tiny bits of plastic. It may seem that these small bits of plastic, are minimal, but when there are millions of them around every corner of the earth, their impact on us and the environment is magnified. This way we can leave our Earth clean so that it can be enjoyed by future generations with all of its natural glory. I hope that future generations can enjoy be healthy and enjoy nice clean beaches instead of being afraid to go outside, because of our current negligence.