Plastic products are some of the most abundantly used items across the world. Its convenience cannot be denied - they are durable and affordable in contrast to their organic counterparts. However, it's non-biodegradable nature poses a significant threat to nature. As a result, plastics lie in the landfill for ages. There have been instances where plastic was found at the deepest point of Earth, the Mariana Trench. Today, plastics are said to be one of the most polluting materials that we use in our daily lives. You will find reports on how animals and marine organisms have died as a result of consuming plastic bags or similar products of the same material.
What Are Microplastics?
The plastic products that we often associate with pollution are the ones that we can see. However, a microscopic form of plastic exists responsible for polluting 60 percent of the freshwater sources in the world. This form of the material is called microplastic, and it consists of plastic fragments that are less than 5 mm in size. According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), microplastics enter the ecosystem through various sources, with clothing and cosmetics acting as the primary source.
How Are They Released in the Environment?
Reports suggest that microplastics are responsible for nearly 30 percent of the waste present in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The majority of microplastics come from the clothing and cosmetic industry, followed by tires and sewage, manufacturing, and fishing industries.
Clothing and Cosmetic Sources
Studies indicate that synthetic fibers such as polyester, nylon, acrylic, etc. shed microscopic particles when washed. These fabrics are known for their durability, and as a result, the minute particles shed by them do not decompose quickly. A wash-cycle can release up to 700,000 fibers into the environment. Apart from clothing, cosmetics also release a massive amount of microplastics in the environment. A lot of manufacturers use microplastics as an exfoliating ingredient instead of natural materials. These microbeads are made up of sturdy plastic and polyethylene and are found in most common face washes and soaps. These beads are released into the sewage system each time we use the product. The small size of these particles prevents the sewage system from extracting them from wastewater. Statistics show that a single sewage system releases 8 trillion microbeads in the water on a single day.
After the clothing and cosmetic industry, car and truck tires are the second-largest sources of microplastic waste. Tires suffer from wear and tear as they get old, releasing tons of microplastics in the environment. Car tires are by far the highest contributor of tire-based microplastics in the environment.
A variety of plastic products start as granules or resin pellets. Reports show that the U.S. has shown an increase in the production of plastics pellets from 2.9 million to 21 million in 30 years. There have been instances where the pellets got spilled during transportation or when used as a packaging material. Over time, these particles then found their way into rivers and streams.
Fishing Industry and Macroplastics
Fishing activities, both commercial and recreational, are the easiest way for microplastics to end up in water bodies. Fishing nets, fishing lines, and other fishing accessories are made using a synthetic material. They are either lost during use or get damaged and end up in the water body. The particles might not be microscopic initially, but the action of water and air break these pieces into microscopic form.
It is not only the fishing equipment that ends up releasing microplastics in water sources. Macroplastics such as water bottles, packaging material break down into small pieces over time and become a serious threat to the environment.
Threats Posed by Microplastics
When we talk about macroplastics and the threats caused by them, we think about animals eating them and suffocating to death. Microplastics also pose a similar danger, but they work at the base level, making them far more dangerous than the conventional plastic base.
Planktons are some of the essential organisms that are present in water bodies. These minute creatures are not visible to the naked eye, but they are the primary sources of food for tiny fish and other organisms that end up being consumed by a larger predator.
Microplastics disrupt the growth and feeding habits of these planktons and lead to food scarcity for the next level of organisms in the food chain. As a result, the food chain is disrupted in the long run with less nutrition for the animals higher up in the chain.
Another problem caused by microplastics is known as biomagnification. It is a process through which the concentration of a toxic substance in a living organism's system increases as we move up a food chain. This process poses a severe threat to the animals and, in some cases, to us humans.
Let us assume; zooplanktons consume 1mg of microplastics in their system. A tiny fish eats 100s of these zooplanktons, and the concentration of microplastic in its system becomes 100mg. A larger fish such as Salmon eats 100s of these tiny fish, the density of microplastic increases to 10,000 mg in two stages. This Salmon can be consumed by a human being or any other animal who ends up with 10g of plastic in their body, theoretically.
Research shows that we don't even need to consume animals and can still end up with microplastics in our bodies. These particles are hard to filter and are present in freshwater supply. It is estimated that an average human inhales up to 70,000 microplastic particles in a year. Most people would remain unaffected by this issue, but people who suffer from breathing problems and other diseases might get sick due to the presence of microplastics in their bodies.
How to Deal with Microplastic Pollution?
The adverse impacts of microplastics might not be visible now, but they might have disastrous consequences in the long run. Here are a few ways to cut down microplastic pollution -
Better Laundry Practices
The primary source of microplastic is laundry. A wash-cycle, consisting of 6 kg of clothes, releases hundreds of thousands of microplastic fibers in the environment. However, the number of such particles is reduced significantly by making some minor adjustments to our laundry practices. It has been seen that using a cold wash cycle and running the machine at full load greatly reduces the microplastics released in the environment.
Lots of researchers are also working on a better filtration system to trap microplastics released during laundry. One such organization, in Oslo, is running trials for a new filtration system.
As you might have noticed, many people buy clothes, cosmetics, and other items even if they don't need them. This buying trend has significantly increased the rate of discarding products that release microplastics.
It is evident that items made of synthetic materials release microplastics throughout their lives, from the manufacturing process to the degradation process. If we focus on buying stuff that we need, we will save valuable resources and protect the environment from harmful substances.
Better Cloth Designs
Designers are already looking for methods to create synthetic fibers that shed a lot less lint than modern clothing materials. We all know that polyester and other synthetic fibers offer great comfort, durability, and are affordable, but they are a significant source of pollution. As a result, many manufacturers are either looking for better materials or using natural materials instead.
Alternative Packaging Materials
Conventional plastic breaks down into microplastic during the slow process of degradation. We rely on tons of plastics every day, mainly for packaging purposes. Many countries have banned the use of plastics as packaging material and are moving towards better alternatives.
Awareness and Cleanup Campaigns
Various countries and organizations have decided to clean up the water bodies of non-biodegradable trash thrown in them. Furthermore, we have seminars and awareness programs that tell us to let go of plastic and other similar products and opt for greener alternatives.
Choose a Sustainable Way
We are well aware of the problems posed by microplastics and other similar materials. However, we are too reliant on products that use these materials, and it is not possible to get rid of them at once. If we want to protect the environment, we need to create awareness about the issues and look for alternatives for the practices that release microplastics and other harmful substances.
It is high time that we start caring for the environment because we are not only harming the Earth, but also everything that lives on it, including us.