We’ve written before about microplastics and the damage they are causing to our eco systems and our own health, and while there is a lot of (much needed!) focus on reducing large plastic items such as straws, bags, and packaging, microplastics don’t receive the same kind of coverage but are arguably just as damaging. An alarming new study has come out showing that we are consuming up to a credit card size of microplastics per week!
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are defined as miniscule pieces of plastic under 5mm, though most are microscopic and can’t be seen by the naked eye. The plastics we use in our everyday life break down into microplastics, which then pollute our oceans, eco systems, food chain, air, and our own bodies.
Microplastics are broken down from the obvious sources, like plastics bags, but they also come from things like clothing, textiles, toothpastes, exfoliants, and more. An estimated 8.8 million tons of plastic enters the ocean every year, the majority of which gets broken down into microplastics and then contaminates the water and is consumed by sea life.
How are we consuming microplastics?
Today, these microplastics are just about everywhere, so it’s not exactly surprising that they are making their way into our bodies. The most common sources of plastic ingestion are our drinking water, seafood, sea salt, and beer. Tap water is a huge source, but if you regularly consume bottled water, you could actually be doubling the amount of microplastics you ingest. It’s estimated that we consume between 74 000 to 121 000 microplastic particles per year and drinking bottled water could add an extra 90 000 particles to that number.
The second largest source of microplastics is shellfish. Microplastics are now found in a wide range of sea animals, which can often mistake plastic for food, or simply ingest it through the water, but shellfish contain particularly high levels because they are consumed whole.
Microplastics aren’t just found in our water sources, however. Research shows that our land and agriculture are receiving a significant dose of microplastics from improper composting. Due mainly to lazy composting at the individual level, plastics are ending up in our compost, which goes on to become fertilizer for our food supply. These plastics then breakdown and we’re left with microplastics throughout our fields.
How much plastic are we consuming?
Currently, we don’t know exactly. Research is still in its early days and while the recent study placed consumption at approximately 5g per week (i.e. the amount of plastic in a credit card), it only looked at items that make up approximately 15% of our caloric intake (fish, shellfish, salt, sugars, alcohol, water, and air). The other 85% of our diets weren’t looked at it in the study.
What does this mean for us?
Again, we don’t really know yet. The study looked specifically at what we are consuming, rather than the effect that this has on our health, so more research needs to be done before conclusions can be made here. Garth Covernton, a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria’s department of biology where the study was conducted, says that out current understanding of microplastic intake is similar to early studies of alcohol and cigarette consumption in that we now know an approximate amount of consumption, but we don’t know what this amount means for us.
"We're at the point where we know microplastics at some dose could be harmful,” says Covernton, “but we're not at the point where we can say whether what the average person is encountering is the equivalent of one cigarette in a lifetime, or that chronic exposure, like a pack a day."
Some studies have shown signs that microplastics can lead to health complications. A 2017 study conducted out of King’s College in London suggested that the buildup of plastics in our body could be toxic and could impact our immune systems in the long run.
An exerpt from the study reads,
“Although microplastics and human health is an emerging field, complementary existing fields indicate potential particle, chemical, and microbial hazards. If inhaled or ingested, microplastics may accumulate and exert localized particle toxicity by inducing or enhancing an immune response. Chemical toxicity could occur due to localized leaching of component monomers, endogenous additives, and adsorbed environmental pollutants. Chronic exposure is anticipated to be of greater concern due to the accumulative effect that could occur.”
A study conducted by researchers at John Hopkins had similar findings and showed that microplastics could have an effect on immune function and gut health: “Because microplastics are associated with chemicals from manufacturing and that sorb from the surrounding environment, there is concern regarding physical and chemical toxicity.”
Plastics are a permanent problem.
While we may not yet understand the effect that plastics have on our health, there is one thing we do know: plastics aren’t going away. Even if we were immediately to halt plastic production, the current amount on the planet wouldn’t go away because it simply doesn’t break down.
"The biggest issue with these particles is they don't seem to really go away, says Convernton. “If anything, they'll probably just increase in concentration over time, because plastic unfortunately doesn't break down in the environment over a human lifetime."
What can you do?
While there is no doubt that large scale change and advancements are necessary to properly tackle our global plastic crisis, there are still many individual changes we can make.
When it comes to your personal consumption, a logical first step is to reduce intake of the top microplastic culprits. This means reducing (or ideally, eliminating) your consumption of bottled water and shellfish.
We can also take steps to reduce the amount of plastic we consume. Luckily, reducing plastic use is a hot topic these days, and movements like the zero waste movement have helped to bring consumption reduction into the main stream. There are so many amazing resources out there to help guide you through consumption reduction, and we particularly love Going Zero Waste and Zero Waste Home.
We also have a post on simple ways that you can reduce your plastic use. One unexpected culprit of microplastics is synthetic clothing, which releases microplastics into the water during production and when you wash them in the laundry. To learn more, check out our post here on how the plastics in our clothing are polluting our oceans. Our organic cotton bedding contains zero synthetic materials and switching to natural materials like organic cotton and linen is a great way to minimize your plastic use and carbon footprint.
We’re in the early days of understanding the effects of microplastics on our health and our environment, and there is still a lot of work to be done before we have a clear idea of the true impact. However, we here at SOL are taking it as a positive that this important issue is beginning to get the awareness and research it deserves and hope these new studies become a catalyst for greater change.