Breakdown: Why microplastics are everywhere

Updated: May. 12, 2021 at 10:55 AM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Microplastics are found just about everywhere.

They’ve been found in the Mariana Trench, the coast of Spain, in the Great Australian Bight, in the Yangtze River in China, and across the United Kingdom in lakes and rivers.

According to the US Geological Survey microplastics are found in 12% of freshwater fish in the United States. They are also found at a rate of 112,000 particles for every square mile of water in the Great Lakes, and 1,285 particles for every square foot of river sediment.

Any piece of plastic less than 5 millimeters in size is considered a microplastic, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Microplastics can come from several sources, including the small beads found in some soaps and lotions that are advertised as good for exfoliation. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, plastic microbeads first appeared in personal care products about 50 years ago, with plastics increasingly replacing natural ingredients.

Microplastics also include microfibers that come from synthetic clothing like fleece, polyester, and acrylic that shed fibers with each wash. Secondary microplastics are the smaller pieces of once larger plastic items, including anything from toys to plastic bottles, plastic bags and even furniture.

Think about all the times in just one day that you use plastic. From your toothbrush to the packaging on your phone to your protective phone case. Since we began mass producing plastics in the 1940s, somewhere around 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced and, as of an estimate done in 2015, 6.3 billion tons has been tossed into landfills, according to BBC News. An astonishing 20,000 plastic drink bottles are bought every single second with less than half of those collected for any type of recycling. And an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic makes its way into the ocean every year. That’s an amount as heavy as 90 aircraft carriers!

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it takes a plastic bottle 450 years to biodegrade, so you can imagine that just about every water bottle that has ever been produced is still hanging around.

Last year, a study from the American Association for the Advancement of Science found an average of 132 small pieces of plastic literally rained down onto each square meter of public lands in the western United States every year. Plastics have even been found in the snow and waters of the Arctic.

Since these microplastics have made their way to the ocean, they’ve always made their way into our food and water supply. Oceanic organisms accumulate tiny plastic pieces in their bodies, therefore the microplastic also shows up in the seafood we eat.

While plastic-laden salmon may sound disconcerting, researchers say the main way humans are exposed to microplastics is mainly through breathing. Plastics have a significant presence in the air and dust around us. Most of your clothes that aren’t fully cotton or wool contain plastic. Your cozy polyester also sheds microfibers over time. Tires also shave off little particles on the roadways. This is only a few sources, and they all wind up airborne. One study found that the sky deposited between 53.4 to 93.7 particles per square foot across London everyday.

While it’s clear that nowhere is safe from this cloud of microplastics, research into the human health impacts of the particles has been relatively scant. When it comes to the nano-sized particles, it makes it difficult to measure microplastics in food, water, and in the body, so scientists don’t actually know how much plastic humans are breathing and eating. That’s because plastics are mainly made up of carbon and hydrogen and the devices that can identify the plastics have limited resolution, meaning they still can’t see most of the finer pieces that make their way into our bodies. One study concluded that the available evidence doesn’t suggest widespread harm to humans—but added that the evidence is limited.

Scientists estimate that by the year 2025, 11 billion metric tons of plastic waste will have piled in the environment due to humans general consumption of the every day plastic products we use.

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