Microplastics are everywhere, and even the human body cannot evade their influence. These small plastic particles originate from larger pieces of plastic, clothing, microbeads, and various other objects. They can easily spread, as common actions, such as washing clothing, can release trillions of fibers, which eventually make their way into isolated regions, such as the Arctic seas, the Mariana Trench, and Mount Everest. However, despite how pervasive these substances are, little is known about the effects they have, or will have, on both humans and the environment. It is astounding to consider that particles smaller than a pencil eraser could be so prevalent yet so mysterious.
Microplastics are formed from a variety of substances, including cosmetics, paints, textiles, and tires. Tires contribute greatly to microplastic accumulation, for example, as 270,000 tons of microplastics along the sea floor originate from tire dust. Tires shed these small particles while driving, which ultimately find their way into bodies of water through rain and wind washing them off the road. Textiles, too, may produce microfibers. Small polyester fibers are freed from fabrics through the washing and drying cycle and enter waterways. Synthetic fabrics can release hundreds of thousands of microfibers in just a single wash, as discovered by a 2016 study. Certain fabrics contributed more fibers than others, as around 700,000 acrylic fibers are shed per wash, as opposed to the over 100,000 polyester-cotton fibers released. Ultimately, many of the things we use on a daily basis have the potential to introduce thousands of microplastics to both the environment and our own bodies.
Although it may seem that such small pieces of plastic may not have a large impact on the environment, it is also important to analyze the pervasive nature of these substances, as well as the research that has been done regarding their accumulation. In Finland, research using sediment traps was conducted in Huruslahti Bay to learn more about this process and how long it takes. This research has revealed that each year, about 32,400 pieces of plastic are accumulating per square meter. The massive amounts of microplastics in these aquatic ecosystems are extremely harmful to the organisms that dwell there. Other research has determined that zooplankton, an essential component of these ecosystems, have been found to contain microplastics. Although these creatures are small, and thus the impact that this would have on ecosystems would seem minute at first glance, it has also been determined that the ingestion of microplastics limits the ability for zooplankton to eat algae and gather nutrients. Zooplankton contribute greatly to the ecosystem, as they not only aid in lowering algae levels, but they are also an essential food source for fish and other larger organisms. As plastics lower the amount of algae that these plankton are able to consume, these organisms will not clean the water as effectively, and may not provide sufficient nutrients for predators. The ingestion of microplastics by zooplankton also leads to more human exposure. For example, zooplankton do not digest the microplastics consumed, contributing to bioaccumulation. As other organisms eat zooplankton, these plastics also build up in their systems. Similarly, as predators consume organisms lower on the food chain, they acquire a larger concentration of microplastics and other substances. This biomagnification, along with bioaccumulation, culminates in human consumption of microplastics, especially when eating shellfish, as any plastics are not removed from their systems before they are prepared. Upon studying various marine fish from markets in Indonesia and China, researchers determined that approximately 25% of these fish contained plastics or fibers.
Although microplastics are usually discussed in relation to aquatic environments, they can impact soil and agriculture as well. The effect of these substances, however, also extends beyond other ecosystems. The possibility of these substances affecting human lives is no longer a far-off idea. A study has revealed that microplastics have been located in the placentas of several women. Every half a year, for example, the average person consumes a cereal bowl's worth of microplastics. The increasing prevalence of these substances in our lives demands both investigation and action.
Microplastics originate from a variety of sources, and it is evident that a multifaceted solution is essential. These particles (most notably fleece microfibers) access our sewer systems and waterways, eventually finding their way to soil. Meanwhile, millions of microplastics end up in our bodies from plastic bottles and other household items. Many may also consume microplastics from unexpected sources, such as shellfish and other seafood, fruits (especially apples), vegetables (notably broccoli and carrots), and even salt. Even if one manages to avoid foods that contain larger concentrations of these substances, microplastics consumption may be unavoidable: when we breathe, we may also absorb particles. Even the water we drink may be contaminated, as water treatment centers have been unable to filter out all of these substances. Microplastics have become so pervasive that the water cycle is impacted: researchers studying various rainwater samples collected along the Rocky Mountains in Colorado discovered that over 90% contained these particles.
There are several things that can be done on both a local and global level to prevent the continued spread of these plastics. On an individual level, people may be able to limit how often they wash their clothes. Notably, Levi’s Jeans suggests placing your jeans in the freezer (which limits the spread of bacteria), spot cleaning, and hand-washing with cold water in order to keep jeans out of the washing machine. Also, using other materials, such as metal bottles, may allow for lowered consumption of microplastics. This would greatly reduce the amount of single-use plastics consumed, which largely contributes to the presence of microplastics in our environment. On a larger scale, some scientists are researching potential methods for converting microplastics into carbon dioxide and water through processes such as electrolytic oxidation. However, it is also important to consider the possible impact this may have on the environment if this method is expanded, as carbon dioxide emissions may only worsen the existing climate crisis. Rallying for a more responsible approach to plastic use and regulation, and getting the attention of both businesses and government officials, is essential. As a result of the amount of attention brought to the issue of microplastics, Morgan Stanley, a global financial services firm, has released a plan to adopt with its clients in order to limit plastic pollution: the Plastic Waste Resolution. More research, such as that done in Finland and regarding the zooplankton and placentas, can allow for a clearer understanding of the impact that these substances have on humans and the environment.