Written by: Natalia Brown

Scientists have found tiny bits of microplastic affecting all our daily activities at the biochemical level— from the components of household dust we inhale to the effects of the purity of our food and drinking water on cellular functions in our bodies.

Although we seem to rely on them more than any other material, plastics and their additives remain very understudied. Most of their thousands of unique component chemicals have yet to be tested for health and safety risks.

Ironically, it is that much more difficult for researchers to precisely pinpoint these cause-and-effect relationships because of all the different types of plastics we are exposed to—food and beverage packaging, cleaning products, clothes and linens, hygiene and personal care products, even polymers used in heavy infrastructure!

One recent study published that the average American is exposed to over 70,000 plastic particles each year! This number is only expected to grow as plastic production booms over the next couple decades.

Projections indicated that by 2050, we’ll have produced 26 billion tons of plastic waste as a result [Source].

“Primary waste” is plastic becoming waste for the first time and doesn’t include waste from plastic that has been recycled. [G. Grullón, Science]

You may have already seen pictures in the news and throughout social media, much like this decomposing albatross with a stomach full of plastic waste.

These incidents are most often caused by the plastics we use and discard on land. Plastic litter is a more common problem in developed, high-income countries. Although we have the systems and resources in place to manage large streams of collected waste, our access to limitless single-use products and the other conveniences have brought us, residents of more developed countries, out of touch with the value of the materials we discard and the immediate effects of tossing them as litter. Although our waste management systems are not flawless, following common sense standards for disposal is tremendously better than leaving trash behind in an unintended spot.

[Dan Clark, US Fish and Wildlife Service]

With the largest population, China produced the most plastic waste in 2010, nearly 60 million tons! China’s production is followed by the United States at 38 million, Germany at 14.5 million and Brazil at 12 million tons. Although this data was sourced one decade ago, distribution of waste generation has not changed much since then and is projected to look similarly into 2025.

The vast majority of trash collected from these top contributors is transported to low-and-middle-income countries through the global waste trade. Because importing countries lack the resources and infrastructure to properly manage the massive volumes of waste they receive, waste mismanagement results in coastal pollution that immediately impacts the surrounding marine life and water quality. In South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, between 80-90 percent of plastic waste exceeds the recipients’ management capacity; almost inevitably polluting nearby rivers and oceans. This source of pollution is different from the littered waste discussed as most problematic in higher-income countries because it is the result of a lack of resources and mismanagement on a larger-scale, independent of individuals’ attitudes.

No matter how they find their way into the environment, macro-plastics—that for the most part still resemble their original in-tact form—can be easily mistaken by marine life for food.

[Richard Carey, Adobe Stock]

The jellyfish-like movement of a drifting plastic bag may come to mind, but this problem isn’t limited to physical appearances. A recent study conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that sea turtles responded most similarly to the smell of “biofouled” plastics as to that of their own food. This finding suggests that the unavoidable accumulation of microbes, algae, plants and small animals on the surface of plastic marine debris makes it that much more attractive for turtles to eat our trash.

Scientists estimate that nearly all seabirds and over half of our oceans’ sea turtles have ingested plastic. This blocks their digestive tracts and diminishes their appetite, resulting in malnutrition and population decline.

Fragments of ingested plastic bags found in a juvenile green turtle’s stomach.[Victoria Gonzalez Carman, Business Insider]

Additionally, studies have found that over 700 species of fish have had interactions with human waste— over 90% of which have been with plastics.

How does this affect human health?

Researchers from the University of California Davis and University of Hasanuddin found plastic debris in the majority of fish species sampled during their studies, all of which were marketed for human consumption. Notably, different streams of waste affected the two regions; textile fibers were found in 67% of species living off of the west coast of the US while larger microplastic debris were found in 55% of the species tested from Indonesia. [Source]

Macro-plastics cannot chemically degrade, but they do physically breakdown into microscopic bits that are difficult to see or filter out of the water. Those tiny bits contaminate our drinking water and accumulate in seafood when consumed by fish.

Even more often than macro-plastics, these tiny bits of microplastics are unintentionally consumed by marine and freshwater species.

Once ingested, microplastics break down into even teenier nano-plastics that can penetrate cell membranes⁠. This causes severe inflammation, breakage and decay of tissues in the gastrointestinal tract, absorption of harmful chemical additives, and often a stimulus response to toxicity. According to one study on the effects of nano-plastics, exposed fish exhibited severely altered feeding and shoaling behavior and metabolic function [Source].

Bioaccumulation is the process in which chemicals consumed by an organism enter the food web by building up in individual organisms. In this way, the average American is said to ingest well over thirty thousand microplastic particles annually. [Source]

When plastic-exposed fish are consumed, the human body is put at an increased risk for disruption in endocrine functions related to neurological development and sexual health. In fact, the effects of some tested chemical additives have been linked to increased risk for developmental and endocrine defects including prostate and breast cancer.  [Source]

[The Ocean Cleanup]

If the issue goes beyond marine species, into our drinking water and uptake by plant nutrients— how can we protect our health and address this issue over the long term?

Survey your day-to-day activities and gradually swap out the single-use plastic products you rely on regularly.

Reducing your individual plastic footprint and opting for reusable or biodegradable alternatives will set an example for your family, friends, peers, and coworkers that’ll collectively increase your impact. When we all become more conscious and responsible, waste management problems can be more feasibly addressed.

Odds are, you already have loads of plastic products at home. Don’t just throw them away!

Refill, reuse, and repurpose the items you’ve already purchased or received as packaging. You will maximize utility to continue enjoying the durability of plastics while reducing your demand on new products/materials. 

Advocate for responsible disposal/management of plastic waste at home, at school, at work, at businesses you frequent, and by your local government. Spread the “trash talk” by crowd-sharing knowledge to support a waste conscious culture.

Most people aren’t properly educated on what is effectively recycled in their city, town, or state— this is essential to prevent contamination that disincentives local funding for the curricular solutions we need.

Support or engage in research on the environmental and biochemical implications of plastic waste. Simply sharing the results of intriguing new studies on social media can help to spread the benefits of this important information!

 

Questions about how plastics enter the food chain? human health impacts of micro and nano-plastics? Suggestions for future Trash Talk topics? Reach out to me, natalia@debrisfreeoceans.org!