The Macro Problem of Microplastics

The Macro Problem of Microplastics

As people walk down the bustling streets of an industrialized city, they come across plastic grocery bags, plastic soda rings and plastic straws littering sidewalks. While concern for plastic pollution is justified, there is another type of human and environmental toxicant to be wary of: microplastics. 

Microplastics are defined as any small plastic piece under 0.2 inches in size. They are found in a variety of cleaning products, manufacturing and especially in popular cosmetics and hygienic products. As people are cleaning themselves, they are instead ironically polluting their skin, and, subsequently, health. Microplastics are added to these items for a number of reasons: their abrasiveness allows a squeaky-clean scrub; non-degradability ensures a long shelf life; and to add color or sparkle. 

Although microplastics are useful, they pose a threat to our health through their ability to bypass waste-water filtration systems. This is the same treatment process used to help the environment by removing organic matter that can deplete the oxygen in our water bodies, killing aquatic life. Due to their tiny size, microplastics find their way into large bodies of water, contaminating our food and water. 

Researchers from the World Wildlife Fund have estimated that every week, we consume about a credit card’s worth of plastic. These particles are found directly in our diet, and packaging of foods and beverages. Thus, we consume 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles each year, according to the National Geographic. 

Microplastics can attack us through habituating in the aquatic ecosystem. As we rinse the grime off our skin, these particles get washed away into the ocean. Sea life then mistakes micro-garbage as food that either kills them, by damaging their digestive systems, or remains inside their bodies. Think of the human food chain, but with toxicants instead of food: the fish eat the microplastics thinking they are healthy nutrients, and we humans eat the fish thinking they are also healthy nutrients. Now we have ingested a microplastic fish, and not the sweet Swedish candy. 

Microplastics hurt more than just humans — they also negatively impact marine life. These are the most prevalent form of marine pollution, turning a diverse and healthful ecosystem into a toxic hotspot. Seals, fish, zooplanktons are getting sick and decreasing in numbers; harmful algal blooms are growing rapidly; and our oceans are murky, sparse, and lifeless. The popular large coral reefs, oceans, and lakes, such as The Great Barrier Reef, Pacific Ocean and the Great Lakes are all suffering from this nearly invisible issue of microplastic pollution. 

The concern is not as prominent, because we are unable to detect them with our bare eyes. Thus, we underestimate their disastrous abilities. However, just as we avoid standing near microwaves or staying under the sun’s ultraviolet rays for long, we must be conscientious of the microplastics produced, applied and consumed. After all, the small things that go unnoticed are often most powerful. Now, what can we do to prevent this? 

There are several ways everyone — officials, professionals and regular citizens — can make minor, yet significant changes. We can inform ourselves about which companies produce microplastic products and create natural alternatives, such as using sugar as an exfoliant, baking soda as oral cleaner and lemon and vinegar mixture as a pre-hand washing method. 

We can suggest to our friends, co-workers and neighbors how to be safer consumers for our health and environment. Talk about being eco-friendly in a fun and conversational manner, instead of a condescending, preachy, standing-on-a-soapbox way. Creating change does not require a time-consuming law or bill to be passed and made effective. By holding each other accountable for ensuring a clean, natural Earth to live on, we can gradually work toward a plastic-free environment. 

Ideally harmful plastics would not devastate the world we live in. While the idea of saving turtles by eliminating plastic straws sounds cute and immediate, there is much more to be done. We cannot rely on others to educate us or clean up after us — now is the time to take action. 

 

Tiffany Dinh is a UC Berkeley undergraduate studying Nutritional Sciences with an emphasis in Toxicology and Food Systems. She is an Alameda native.