When it comes to eating one of your favorite meals, odds are you aren’t worried about it being full of plastic. But, as it turns out, more and more foods are being found to contain microplastics — and long-term ingestion of these microscopic particles could be doing us more harm than we realize.
Created in the late 1800s, plastic was initially patented by Alexander Parkes, a chemist who used the new material to create colorful and cheap substitutes for ivory and tortoiseshell¹. But, while this finding was revolutionary at the time, it took until the early 20th century for plastic to truly take off in popularity and use around the world. Plastic is so popular, in fact, that since the early ‘60s, its global production has climbed a near-exponential curve of growth, with over 350 million tonnes of plastic created in 2015 alone².
With the increasing boom of the plastic industry taking off in the 1960s, it took less than ten years for landfills to begin overflowing with used and thrown-away plastics. Often created for this specific purpose, we have continued to view plastic as a one-time use product — and since the 1950s, over 6.3 billion tons of plastic (or 75% of all plastic ever created) has been dumped and discarded³.
As the amount of plastic, we create and dispose of increases yearly, plastic pollution has taken over just about every part of the globe. From our overflowing landfills to the bottom of the ocean to now even being found in our food, plastics (including small plastic particles called microplastics) are becoming a serious problem — and if we don’t change our mindset surrounding plastic usage, we soon will be living with more plastic waste than we could ever imagine.
The term “microplastics” was first coined in 2004 by Professor Richard Thompson, who was working as a marine biologist studying the impact of plastic pollution on marine life. Defined as any plastic or polymer particle smaller than 5mm in length or diameter, these sometimes microscopic pieces can be found in just about everything.
Currently, to better understand where the microplastic particles are coming from, researchers label pieces under one of the two following categories:
Primary microplastics — These particles are created to be 5mm or smaller as part of their initial use. They are most commonly found in cosmetic and skincare products, but they can also be found in other large industries as well. Additionally, companies that use primary microplastics in their products have recently received a large amount of backlash online as consumers start to voice their opinions about the negative impacts of these additives.
Secondary microplastics — Originally created as parts of large plastic products, these microplastic particles break off due to wear and tear. Most of the microplastics in our ecosystem are secondary microplastics, and there has been an uptick in findings of this type of plastic in our oceans and marine life.
So it’s quite clear that microplastics are a serious problem — but how did these microplastics find their way into your ecosystem in the first place? To better understand this, we need to explore how plastic is made and how long it takes to degrade to its original components.
Plastic is a polymer substance, meaning that its molecular structure is made up of long strings of identical chemical bonds. This is a very important structural trait of plastics, as polymer substances are well known for being hard to break down due to their bond structure — which is part of why plastics can take hundreds of years to truly biodegrade. Often created from naturally occurring materials such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, and crude oil, the molecules of these substances undergo a distillation process to begin the process of becoming plastic⁴. Once separated into their molecular fractions, polymerization and polycondensation occur, creating strong and durable plastic materials that will live on our planet for centuries to come⁵.
After decades of plastic creation and dumping, microplastics truly have taken over the globe. As more and more plastic products are thrown away, they break apart into smaller pieces, which are now being found in our oceans, rivers, rain, glaciers, snow, plant life, wild and aquatic animals, and even the air we breathe.
According to a comprehensive review published in 2019 by the European Union, it is strongly believed that microplastics are now present in every part of the global environment⁶. Some statistics and studies that further support this frightening claim include:
A report from the United Nations found that plastics are estimated to make up approximately 80% of all litter and pollution in our oceans⁷. Altogether, upwards of 51 trillion microplastic particles are floating around in our coastal waters, which is 500 times larger than the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy⁷.
A study published in 2021 found that microplastics now “spiral around the entire globe” as they have entered our atmosphere when they are moved around by wind and rain. These deposits can fall anywhere on Earth, often far from where the plastics were used or disregarded⁸.
A groundbreaking research analysis by the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) found that 94.4% of tap water samples from the United States contained plastic fibers and microplastics⁹. As incredibly small particles that are hard to filter out, these water samples had an average of 9.6 plastic fibers per liter, which could be expected to increase as more microplastics enter our water supply⁹.
Countries with the highest daily per capita plastic waste include Kuwait, Guyana, Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, and The United States¹⁰. Countries with the highest amount of per capita mismanaged waste disposal include the Philippines, India, China, Brazil, and Nigeria¹⁰.
It is currently estimated that the average person consumes around 2000 pieces of microplastic every seven days⁹. Added together, that comes to about 21g of plastic every month or over 250g of plastic every year⁹.
If our current plastic creation and dumping trend continues, the UN expects that our oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050⁷.
With more plastic finding its way into our natural ecosystems every day, it is clear that we need to change our current relationship with this harmful substance — especially as new research shows that it may be more harmful to our own health than we originally realized.
As microplastics continue to be found in our water, air, food, and surrounding environments, it is no surprise that they have also found their way into our bodies.
Because microplastic can be small enough to enter our tissues and cells, it is speculated that chronic exposure to these substances can irritate the body. Like asbestos crystals have been proven to cause chronic inflammation and damage our lung tissue, microplastics pose a serious risk to our overall health — but they have the added negative effect of impacting our hormones.
To create strong and durable materials, plastic manufacturers add chemical compounds such as stabilizers and plasticizers to their products. While these additives are not objectively harmful to our health when they exist within the plastic products we use, these chemicals can impact our hormonal balances when they enter our bodies as microplastic particles¹¹.
Interestingly enough, a limited amount of clinical research has been published that covers the direct impact of microplastic particles on human health. In most studies about this topic, conclusions about their potential dangers are drawn based on the reactions of independent human cells or tissues in a lab rather than real-life situations. Additionally, many of these types of studies use polystyrene spheres of plastic, which are not chemically similar to the microplastics we are all exposed to on a day-to-day basis¹¹.
According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), there is currently not enough conclusive research and data about microplastics in our food and ecosystems to understand how it interacts with human health¹². But, while this claim may seem dismissive of the potential dangers of this ever-growing concern, it is more of a plea for increased research and analysis into the true health impacts of our current plastic-based situation.
If all of this information about the potential dangers and negative impacts of plastic use has got you feeling stressed, you are not alone. As more people become aware of the gravity of our plastic pollution situation, more personal and global initiatives have begun to emerge.
When grappling with the enormity of this issue, it can be very tempting to feel like we have gone too far to make any changes. But, like any large issue, there are two effective ways to initiate sustainable change — through increased awareness and advocacy and by making informed individual decisions.
In order for widespread global change to occur involving our current relationship with plastics, accessible education about the potential dangers and damages that plastics cause is needed. As a large-scale project that will require time to be fully adopted, examples of ways that you can help improve global awareness of plastic use include:
Speaking to your friends, family, and co-workers about plastics and microplastics. The more conversations and awareness we can bring to the cause, the more people will feel empowered and interested in pitching in!
Staying up to date with the newest research and findings on the dangers of plastics. Reading the newest findings from trusted organizations like the WWF, WHO, and other global health and environmental organizations is a great way to stay informed about this ever-changing situation.
Writing to your government representative and voting for politicians who value the environment and reducing plastic usage. As our countries' leaders and representatives for their people, government officials and politicians have the power to enact change in our environment. Becoming more politically engaged and voting for parties that support greener options to reduce our plastic consumption can be a helpful way to tackle our growing plastic problem.
Change is never a fast process, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t small changes you can make in your own life that positively impact our environment. Examples of plastic-conscious decisions that you can make in your own personal life include:
Avoid purchasing plastic water bottles, and instead, opt to use your own reusable water bottle when possible. Reusable coffee cups are also a great way to reduce the amount of waste you produce on a day-to-day basis.
Choose products that are packaged in 100% recyclable materials. As more companies are making an effort to be more environmentally friendly, products with this type of packaging are becoming easier to find. Additionally, avoiding products that have unnecessary packaging is another way to reduce your plastic waste.
Bring reusable bags to carry home your groceries. Single-use plastic bags take centuries to decompose and are found worldwide, so limiting your use of these products can help reduce your ecological footprint.
When you do collect plastic materials, be sure to recycle them correctly based on your country's recycling guidelines. To prevent the plastic from getting to the landfill, clean your plastic products as needed and avoid mixing them with non-recyclable products before disposing of them.
Avoid products that contain microplastic beads. While the number of cosmetic and skincare products containing these small plastic pieces is on the decline, choosing other alternatives is a great way to reduce the amount of microplastic you are exposed to.
Say no to unneeded plastic cutlery or dishes when you order out. Additionally, ask for plastic-free packaging for your foods and drinks whenever possible.
The age of plastic: From parkesine to pollution | Science Museum
Global plastics production | Our World in Data
We’ve thrown away 75% of plastic ever made – and it’s still polluting | The New Humanitarian
What are microplastics? | National Ocean Service
How plastics are made | Plastic Europe
A scientific perspective on microplastics in nature and society | Science Advice for Policy by European Academies
‘Turn the tide on plastic’ urges UN, as microplastics in the seas now outnumber stars in our galaxy | United Nations News
Constraining the atmospheric limb of the plastic cycle (2020)
No plastic in nature: Assessing plastic ingestion from nature to people | World Wildlife Foundation
Plastic pollution | Our World in Data
Microplastics are everywhere — but are they harmful? | Nature
Presence of microplastics and nanoplastics in food, with particular focus on seafood (2016)
Claire Bonneau is a medical writer and certified trauma operating room nurse.
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