How much do you know about how the recycling system works? I don’t know where you live in the United States, but what can be recycled all depends on your local policy. So, in other words, there is no universal form of recycling across the country. Every city and state has its own regulations and methods that govern how and what is recycled. In some places, recycling is mostly effective and efficient. In other places, some or all of what is thrown into a recycling bin ends up in landfills or garbage incinerators.
Also, you have probably seen overflowing recycle bins with plastic bottles and aluminum cans in cities as well as resort areas, right? According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 8 million tons of plastic from all around the world flows into the ocean every year creating devastating effects to the health of the ocean and sea life. It is really scary to know that by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish. Basically, we won’t be able to eat wild fish soon if we don’t stop this disaster now.
Today, however, I am not going to talk about the wild fish, instead, I am going to talk about microplastic. Some of my readers are familiar with the research article published last October which was headlined, ”Ninety Percent of Salt Contains Plastic”. In this study, 39 salt brands worldwide were tested and 36 of them had microplastics. Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that are less than five millimetres long.
What are the microplastics? There are several types of microplastics. The first type of microplastic is microbeads. These are the small (less than one millimeter) plastic beads used in facial scrubs, shower gels and toothpaste, and among other products. The second type is Fibers. Many of our clothes are made of synthetic plastic fibers, such as nylon and polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and a single washing cycle can shed up to 700,000 fibers! The third one is Nurdles. Nurdles are small plastic pellets. They are melted and molded together to form any desired shape, so, nearly all our plastic goods are made from nurdles. The fourth type is Fragments. This includes any fragment broken down from larger plastics. The plastic bottles or polystyrene lunch box containers ended up in the oceans will break up into small particles through UV-B radiation from sunlight, photo-oxidative degradation.
What is going to happen to my body if I ingest microplastics? Truthfully, no one knows because there is no human research that has been conducted about the aftermath of ingesting microplastics. (You can’t ask someone to eat plastics, right?) The study from last October about microplastic in salt estimates that the average adult consumes approximately 2,000 microplastics per year through salt. Also, there is poop research. A small study of 8 human participants kept a food diary for a week and then provided a stool sample for testing. All stool samples tested positive for plastic. It was impossible to identify where this microplastic came from. It could be the seafood they ate, plastic wraps used on the food they ate, gums they chewed, or bottled water they drank.
Some people think that since the microplastics ended up in the stool, that there will be no harm to the human body. However, there are also tinier plastics called nanoplastics which may be able to migrate through the intestinal wall during digestion. A study published August 2018 titled, “Microplastics in Seafood and the Implications for Human Health”, describes that “The potential health risks of micro- and nanoplastics could be evaluated similar to those of engineered nanoparticles. Following oral exposure, nanoplastics are transported by M cells, specialized epithelial cells of the mucosa, from the gut into the blood where they are carried through the lymphatic system and into the liver and gall bladder. The systemic distribution from oral exposure to nanoparticles has been shown to have numerous effects: cardiopulmonary responses, alterations of endogenous metabolites, genotoxicity, inflammatory responses, oxidative stress, effects on nutrient absorption, gut microflora, and reproduction.”
Moreover, plastic comes in many forms and contain a wide range of additives such as, pigments, ultraviolet stabilizers, water repellents, flame retardants, stiffeners such as bisphenol A (BPA), and softeners called phthalates. These additives are known for hormone disruptor and could further lead to adverse reproductive and developmental effects or cancer. In fact, a recent study published in the December 2018 JAMA Pediatrics found that language delays in children could be linked to phthalates in plastics.
There is no way to prove that many diseases the world is facing are from microplastic pollutions, but at the same time, you can’t deny it either. So, you need to avoid exposure to microplastics. First of all, we should minimize the use of plastic. We should stop buying plastic bottled drinks, stay away from styrofoam containers, stop using microbead products. Since the plastic is everywhere in our life and not many alternatives are available, it is not easy to switch, but even a few commitments such as
1) Use a reusable produce bag
2) Buy products in cardboard boxes instead of in bottles.
3) Purchase dry food like pasta, and rice, beans from bulk bins instead of packaged one.
4) Pack your lunch in reusable containers and bags.
5) Stop using plasticware at home
In the meantime, I am hoping those smart engineers can invent sustainable products to replace plastic in the really near future!