Microplastic Contamination

by Nefeli Athanasaki,

Microplastics are plastic particles less than 5mm in size, that has rapidly become a prevalent type of polluter. They have been identified as a global environmental threat that affects both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and has negative effects on human health. It is also a source of air pollution detected in dust and airborne fibrous particles. Microplastic particles are heterogeneous in size, density and chemical additives which are emitted by a variety of polyester and other materials. Thus, they vary in physic-chemical characteristics, life cycle and impact (Thermo Fisher Scientific, 2020). These particles – which are not biodegradable – are the main component of many products of the cosmetic industry in the form of microbeads.  They also come as a result of plastic pollution, after the disintegration of plastic bags and bottles, as well as the washing of synthetic clothes (Rogers, 2019). Microplastics consist of carbon and hydrogen atoms bound together in polymer chains. In addition, they also contain other chemicals, such as phthalates, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA).  Many of these chemical additives leach out of the plastics after entering the environment.

Many efforts in categorizing the microplastics have been made. One of them supports that they are divided into two main categories: primary and secondary. Examples for the first category are the microbeads found in personal care products, the plastic pellets (or nurdles) used in industrial manufacturing, and the plastic fibers used in synthetic textiles (e.g., nylon). The microplastics that belong in the second category occur after the dissolution of larger plastics or when they have undergone weathering after being exposed in wave action, ultraviolet radiation from sunlight, etc. (Rogers, 2019)

A different categorization of microplastics is presented by Bertling et al. (2018), where there are three main types: “primary microplastics” which are types A and B and “secondary microplastics.” Primary microplastics of Type A, are plastic particles originally produced to be used as microplastics (e.g., micro-beads in care products, or pellets). Primary microplastics of Type B, are plastic particles emitted from plastic material during usage (e.g., tire wear). Secondary microplastics are fragments of plastic particles emitted as macroplastic into the environment (e.g., plastic bags littered in the environment) (Henseler, 2019). Another very important and relatively new category is the nano plastic one, where the particles are so small that they cannot be detected by the naked eye.

Fragmented microplastics have been detected in multiple environments and living organisms. Firstly, in agriculture, the soil receives microplastic immissions from tire wear and macroplastics that have dissolved through littering. Biosolids, like sewage sludge and compost when applied, release the microplastics that they contain, making the arable land of the farmers polluted. As a result, these agricultural soils emit those microplastics into the aquatic environment. In addition, agricultural producers who use plastic mulch films might risk microplastic contamination by fragmentation of larger pieces. Secondly, in the early 21st century, the annual plastic pollution of oceans, from all types of plastics, was estimated at 4 million to 14 million tons. In 1973, reports about ocean pollution indicated that the sea was very dirty, while 11 years later it was reported that the world’s oceans and aquatic life were threatened by deadly tide of plastic waste. In 1992, biologists claimed that the death of a whale found at the shore was the aftermath of her swallowing a plastic bag. Later on, in 2008, an essay on plastic pollution in the oceans used the term sea of “trash” to describe the seas worldwide. This term was verified in 2015 when a study confirmed that the levels of plastics in the oceans were rising at an annual rate (Kramm, 2018).

Thirdly, a recent review collated 50 studies wherein scientists found microplastics in freshwater, drinking water and wastewater. In some of these studies, thousands of microplastic particles were found in every liter of drinking water (Newman, 2019). Microplastics have been traced to water facilities and tap water globally. That was the result of a study where scientists examined samples from 12 countries, 83% of which were contaminated with microplastic. The U.S., India, and Lebanon were ranking higher with percentages of contamination reaching 94% (Carrington, 2017). Further studies indicate microplastic contamination of rivers around the world (Elsevier, 2020). Fourthly, researchers from the Ecolab in the School of Agricultural and Life Sciences in Toulouse discovered that a daily rate of plastic pollution falling from the sky in the Pyrenees was comparable to the amount raining down on Paris and Dongguan, a large industrial city in China (Davidson, 2019). In further detail, microplastics smaller than 25 microns can enter the human body through the nose or mouth and those less than five microns can end up in lung tissue. It is a fact that microplastics tend to be sticky and accumulate heavy metals like mercury and persistent organic pollutants, including materials with well-known health impacts (Davidson, 2019).

Microplastics pose an imminent threat to a variety of sectors. According to a pilot study, conducted for the annual United European Gastroenterology Conference in Vienna, microplastics were traced in many stool samples of people from Finland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, U.K. and Austria. Every stool sample tested positive for up to nine different plastic types, with an average of 20 particles of plastic per 10 grams of stool (Neimark, 2018). This means, that there is plastic in human bodies. This plastic is micro- or nanoplastic and derives from the consumption of water, fish as well as from breathing. Therefore, microplastics are present in most environments and creatures. Scientists have located them from the deepest known seabed level to the stomachs of whales, seabirds, and humans (Readfearn, 2019).

The consequences of this situation are yet to be discovered since there are no scientifically proved studies on the matter. For that reason, there are numerous studies published in order to indicate the edible products that may contain microplastics. Among these studies, a rather interesting one emerged: the teabag study. More specifically, the study indicates that nylon teabags leech billions of microplastics into every single cup of tea (Matei, 2019). Despite the human contamination by microplastic, it is important to mention the animal exposure to it as well. Every year, many animals in the ocean such as fish, crabs, whales and many more are dying after having digested microplastics often in huge amounts. A study published in 2019, showed that the majority of the particles, ingested by 10 different species, were fibers (84%) while the remaining 16% were fragments (Nelms, 2019).

Apart from humans and animals, many countries have been particularly damaged by the effects of microplastic pollution. Indonesia, is the second larger polluter of the marine environment. The country’s most polluting river, Ciliwung river, was monitored from 5 different locations. The findings showed that 20,000 items were flowing into the ocean from the river per hour (van Emerik, 2020). The study also finds the weight of plastic waste from all rivers in Jakarta, totals 2.1 million kilograms, equivalent to 1,000 Tesla Model S cars. Nonetheless, Jakarta is not the only example. Nigeria is also contaminated by this microplastic menace that has occurred around the globe (Ilechukwu, 2019). The Arctic is also affected by this menace. Since microplastics are incorporated within the ice, they could impact the absorption of incident solar radiation. This affects sea ice albedo, which is the way the ice reflects solar energy and is one of the key properties of sea ice in terms of regulation of the heat exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere (Geilfus, 2019).

Microplastic is a reality that the world is facing and needs to act on. There are many initiatives from NGO’S, institutions, governments and national organizations. In more detail, Indonesia has ambitious targets to reduce plastic waste by 70% by 2025 (van Emerik, 2020) Canada, United Kingdom and the United States, among other countries, have recently banned plastic microbeads due to their negative effects on humans and animals (Bucci, 2020), (H.R. 1321 (114th), 2015). Moreover, the EU Parliament meetings together with the G7 meeting have on the agenda the environmental pollution by microplastic (European Comission, 2019). KIMO, an NGO that focuses on sea sustainability, publishes studies about the pollution of marine ecosystems and shares them with the UN, EU and European governments (KIMO, 2018). The European Commission funds researches about microplastic pollution in an effort to inform about the problem and achieve better governmental communication in order to combat this issue collaboratively with all European states (KIMO, 2018). “Seas at Risk” is an organization that makes efforts on restoring and protecting the marine environments as well. According to the organization, the European Chemical Agency recently called for public consultation to restrict microplastics. That is of high importance since the total plastics that are produced in the EU is 60 million tons, of which 45 million are thrown away and form plastic waste. In total, 18 million tons are released in the environment, 176,300 thousand of which is microplastic litter in European surface waters (Piccinelli, 2019). Another major factor in the fight against global pollution is China. The relatively new Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment has announced that other waste imports, including scrap steel, post-industrial plastics waste, PET bottles and e-waste, will be banned from entering China by the end of 2018 (Schröder, 2018). This decision might have negative impacts on Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, such as overburdening them.

To conclude, the microplastic world contamination issue is a global and major problem that needs to be dealt with promptly and effectively. From the aforementioned, it becomes clear that this very important issue is not only considered but also slowly taken care of by a variety of initiatives, regulations and policies (Woodward, 2019). The existence of microplastics is spread globally and poses an imminent threat to all life-hosting environments. It is now more than ever important to act fast in order to effectively face the menace and make an effort to undo the damage. Especially since the last studies show that the problem is even bigger than scientists predicted (World Economic Forum, 2019). If responsible actions are taken from many individuals and countries humanity, the environment and animals could get back on track before any other animal deaths occur, before any more habitats are destroyed and before the first human deaths from microplastic contamination are recorded.

 

References:

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