Plastic pollution has become one of the most pressing environmental issues - and that even though plastic hasn’t existed for all that long. Plastic made from fossil fuel is only a little over a century old and mass production of plastic products only took off after World Word 2. Since then, plastic has been used for virtually anything - in medical devices, space travel, and textiles. While not all of these applications of plastic are inherently bad, in recent years, plastic has mainly been used to manufacture a very specific kind of product:
In 2019, single-use plastic items accounted for 40% of all yearly produced plastic products. While the lifespan of these products is incredibly short - often they are only meant to be used for several minutes - their longevity spans centuries. We are not only throwing away plastic at a faster pace than ever, we are also producing more and more of it. Half of the plastic that exists on the planet today was only produced within the last 15 years. And the growth is exponential. While we „only“ produced 2.3 million tons of plastic in 1950, we had already reached 448 million tons in 2015 and this amount is expected to double by 2050.
We have all seen the consequences of this throw-away-culture: pictures of turtles whose shells have grown around the rings of six packs, the stomachs of full grown whales filled with plastic waste, and patches of garbage floating around the oceans that are three times the size of France (Great Pacific Garbage Patch). Every year, around 8 million tons of plastic waste enter our oceans - that’s the equivalent of putting 5 full bags of trash on every foot of coastline on the entire planet. And 80% of that plastic waste originated on land.
While we are becoming more and more aware of the pressing environmental issue of plastic pollution, there is a hidden side to the problem - microplastic. These particles exist in incomprehensible amounts in the environment and are no bigger than 5mm which makes them hard to see and thus difficult to detect the potential harm they are causing. However, we need to be aware of the effects microplastics are having on the planet. In this blogpost we explain where microplastic comes from and where it ends up in the environment. Part 2 will deal with the potential threats and what we can do to minimize them.
Where does microplastic come from?
1. From bigger plastic Items - While we manufacture exorbitant amounts of plastic every day, only around 20% of all the plastic ever made was recycled or incinerated. This means that almost 80% of all the plastic ever produced globally has ended up in landfills or the environment. Scientists belief that some plastic items can take up to 400 years to break down in the environment. But even after that, they never biodegrade but only break down into smaller pieces - microplastic and eventually nanoplastic.
2. From microbeads in products - Some non-plastic products contain microplastics from the start, e.g. in the form of microbeads, because manufacturers intentionally add them to the products. Exfoliants and cleansing agents in cosmetics are essentially plastic, detergents, cleaning products and paints can contain plastic, some fertilizers and pesticides have added plastic, glitter e.g. in makeup is usually pure plastic. These microplastic particles enter the environment when we use any of these products and remain there.
3. From using plastic items - Microplastic doesn’t just form when a plastic item gets thrown away and is slowly broken down by sunlight, wind and waves. They already enter the environment while we are still using plastic products. When products that contain plastic are exposed to hot water, they shed tiny particles which either get flushed out and eventually enter the global water system or are directly consumed by us. This happens, for example, when heating up food in Tupperware or when washing clothes that are made out of polyester.
What happens to microplastic in the environment?
Water currents carry the plastic particles around the planet and bring them to the most remote places where they remain. Scientist have found plastic microfibers in the oceans’ deepest trenches. In fact, the deeper the trench the more particles were found which suggests that ocean trenches act like a sink for our plastic waste. It slowly breaks down into ever smaller pieces that sink to the bottom where they are impossible to clean up. These microscopic particles make up 90% of all plastic in the oceans.
However, microplastic pollution doesn’t only concern our oceans. As scientist Jennifer Provencher puts it, „the more we work on this, the more we are learning that it’s not a middle-of-the-ocean problem. It’s a water body problem. It’s a terrestrial problem, it’s an air problem, it’s a tropical problem, it’s an Arctic problem.“ Tiny plastic particles have been detected in drinking water systems, in table salt, in rain, in Arctic Snow, and even in the air around cities.
From here, microplastics infiltrate the food web. Scientists have found particles in more than 700 aquatic species, e.g. fish, shrimp, mussels, and even whales. A recent study has now also detected microplastic in humans. As one marine biologist put it, „we can now say with confidence that plastic is everywhere.“