Plastic has long been a major environmental concern. Unlike organic materials, plastic is an incredibly durable substance that takes a very long time to degrade. Plastic is relatively new to the planet–it has been around less than a century, and because of that we don’t know when or if it will ever completely decompose.
Scientists guess that plastic could take anywhere from centuries to millenia to completely break down, but in the mean time every stitch of plastic that has ever been made is still here.
While much of it is still in the form of plastic bags, bottles, and fishing net, much more has broken down into smaller fragments called micro plastics. Microplastics consist of any plastic that is under 5 millimeters. If it’s smaller than a grain of rice, it’s safe to say that it’s probably a microplastic.
Some plastics were made this way intentionally. You may not know it, but that “exfoliating face wash” may have microbeads in it which are made from plastic. Even your toothpaste may contain these small plastic beads.
Other types started out as big pieces that were broken down over time. Regardless of where they came from however, they all have detrimental effects on the environment.
One of the problems with microplastics is that they absorb toxins in ocean water, and can leach chemicals of their own when broken down by sunlight. This toxic slew still smells like food however, and many small animals such as krill confuse them for bits of food.
These small animals eat the plastic, and the toxins end up in their system too. Other, larger animals eat them in turn–along with all the plastics and toxins they swallowed.
As the plastic moves up the food chain, we get to fish that humans like to eat. These fish are usually predators themselves and have eaten lots of plastic and gotten lots of toxins in their body through this system. When we eat them, it’s possible we’re eating those toxins too.
While we don’t have any research on humans, we do know that many whales who have washed up on shore dead or very sick had these toxins in their body.
You yourself eat some plastic every day–about a credit card’s worth, whether you know it or not.
Turning off the tap
Because of their small size, once in the environment microplastics are very hard to clean up. Most of the tools meant to catch ocean plastic is for bigger items, such as the bottles and fishing gear we mentioned earlier.
It’s very difficult to clean up microplastics once they leave the source, meaning the best choice is prevention. Not all plastic can be avoided, but there are some things you can do.
You can purchase a filter for your washing machine that filters out plastic in clothing, avoid microbeads in your personal care products, and try to cut your overall plastic use.
Best of all, ask your local government and the companies you shop at to reduce their plastic intake. Overall, getting companies and government involved will make the biggest difference.