What harm do microplastics cause?
While there is a lot of research on the devastating effect of plastic pollution by bigger items, we don’t yet know much about what microparticles are doing to the environment and organism. But more and more scientists are focusing on this area and some things can already be said:
Microplastics disrupt reproduction and development of sea animals. Some studies have been conducted on e.g. oysters and European perch with similar results. Exposure to microplastics inhibited the hatching of larvae and decreased their growth rate. It also increased the likelihood for new organisms to be eaten by predators because they responded to threats differently than their non-exposed counterparts. All of this means that microplastics can alter population size of species, decrease their survival rate and thus contribute to their endangerment.
Microplastics contribute to nutritional deficiency in animals and potentially cause starvation. Many species such as Zooplankton have been found to feed on microplastics. While these particles contain zero nutrients, they can trick the animal into thinking they are full which prevents them from ingesting real food. Furthermore, the tiny pieces can block the intestines of organism which can cause starvation.
Microplastics can expose organisms to toxic chemicals. Some plastics contain hazardous chemicals and toxic pollutants either by default or because they have attached themselves onto the surface of the particles. When ingested, the microplastics can then expose the organism to a high concentration of harmful substances. These can interfere with the hormonal system or chemically affect the body in various ways.
Nanoplastics can accumulate in the body and enter cells. Since plastic particles have been found in animals as well as the air, scientists suspect that we are eating and breathing plastic, between a few dozens to 100,000 particles per day. While the current levels of micro- and nanoplastics in the environment are too low to be dangerous for us, the potential health risks are high with steadily increasing pollution rates. Nanoparticles could be able to enter cells and tissues, and accumulate in our bodies. This could disrupt cellular activities, lead to cell damage, cause irritations, and alter gene expression.
What can we do against microplastics?
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of governments and big corporations to heavily reduce global plastic waste and to find innovative solutions for both cleaning up the existing plastic in the environment as well as developing new biodegradable materials. Without these actors doing their part, we won’t solve the issue of plastic pollution.
However, as every-day consumers, there are still things we can do to minimize our microplastic-footprint:
1. No or alternative packaging - If you start paying attention to the packaging of groceries and other everyday products, you will notice the amount of plastic and will also start to see a lot of potential to reduce your personal plastic waste. As we know, 80% of all plastic items that are thrown away will eventually break down into microplastics in the environment, reduction is an important step.
2. Alternative everyday Items - Pay attention to the items you use everyday, e.g. cutlery, water bottles, vegetable bags, etc. and how many are made out of plastic. Most of these items exist in a different materials which don’t shed or break down into microplastics (obviously there are also other environmental aspects to consider).
3. Read the labels - Some sources of microplastics aren’t as obvious as plastic packaging such as microbeads in cosmetics or plastic-based textiles. Being aware of what’s in the products we buy is the first step to avoid certain materials like plastic.
4. Change of mindset - The biggest problem of pollution aren’t the materials themselves that get thrown away, it’s the single-use mindset with which we treat them. What we need more of is circularity. This means, trying to reuse every item as much as possible and being innovative in how to get more life out of an item or a material.
5. Ask politicians to take action - Many countries have shown initiative to limit plastic pollution in the near future, the most ambitious of them being India which has announced a complete abolishment of single-use plastic by 2022. Let politicians know that you care and that you expect them to take this issue seriously. Ask them to provide the infrastructure for recycling, to ban single-use plastics, and to incentivize the usage of alternative materials.