Micro plastic, Macro effect

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Recently, there has been a media frenzy over the extent of plastic pollution, an issue that has been, and will continue to be, around for many years. By 2050, it is estimated that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Most news outlets have covered the effects on marine life since the release of Blue Planet II – but what are the consequences of ignoring the issue for us?

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic, defined by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  (NOAA) as less than 5 mm in diameter. Most can be categorised to have originated either as primary microplastics, a direct result of human material and product use, or secondary microplastics, derived from the breakdown of larger plastic debris. As of 2015, 6,300mn tonnes of plastic waste have been generated, around 9% of which was recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% ended up in landfills or the environment. This last category is the main issue when dealing with microplastics, as dumping the majority of our plastic waste into the environment is potentially catastrophic. The key problem with plastics is that they are essentially indestructible; rather than being biodegradable, they break down into ever smaller pieces, eventually becoming microscopic fragments. It is almost impossible to completely prevent the release of these particles from water treatment plants, and for many companies extensive filtration is not economically attractive either.

A new variety of disposable cup, with biodegradable lid and starch lining

Work by the University of Exeter found that if ocean sediments are heavily contaminated with microplastics, then marine life such as lugworms (which were used in the study) generally eat less and therefore their energy levels suffer. A separate report from Plymouth University shows that ingesting microplastics can also reduce the health of lugworms by delivering harmful chemicals to them, including hydrocarbons, antimicrobials, and flame retardants.

How microscopic plastic particles easily pass through most water filtration plants (not to scale)

However, the causes and effects on the human side have been examined in less detail. Microplastics can be found everywhere, from toothpaste to bottled water. Orb Media’s recent investigation has brought the issue of microplastics in the environment into sharp focus. The analysis of tap and bottled water samples from around the world found that a high proportion of drinking water is contaminated with microscopic fragments of plastic (83% of samples collected worldwide, up to 94% in the USA).  A 2014 study of German beer brands found that microplastics were present in all of the samples; a Parisian study showed microplastics not just in water but also in the air. The apparent widespread presence of microplastics in terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems is highly concerning, and is reflected by the continued regular ingestion of microplastics by people worldwide. Although the study of microplastics and human health is still developing, other existing fields of environmental research indicate potential particle, chemical and microbial hazards to human health from microplastics. If inhaled or ingested, can microplastics accumulate and induce an adverse immune response, or leach to release toxic chemicals into the body? We are yet to know for certain.

Environmental graffiti, Bristol city centre – despite campaigns, only 9% of plastic is currently recycled

However, there is some hope for a cleaner environment yet. Researchers from the Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies at the University of Bath are focusing on the issue of microplastics, particularly toxins from pharmaceuticals or chemicals such as BPA (bisphenol-A) that can leach from plastic pollution. Currently under development is an automated – and possibly solar powered (hence optimised for their Great Pacific Garbage Patch destination) – plastic removal device utilising salt water and electricity to collect solid polymers from the oceans. 60 UK festivals, including Bestival in Dorset and Boomtown in Hampshire, have said they will ban plastic straws at their events this summer, and MPs are currently discussing a complete ban on single-use plastic straws to be implemented around 2020.