Above: Image © Andreas Steidlinger, iStockPhoto.com

Are you using a mouse right now? Did you brush your teeth today? Are you wearing clothes?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, you have definitely been in contact with plastic today. Many of the things you use every day are made of plastic, including toothbrushes, keyboards, headphones, pens, and even your clothing! (Check your label! Materials like polyester and nylon are made from plastic).

Plastic is a popular material because it’s strong, light, and cheap to make. But the fact that plastic is so durable is not such a good thing once we’ve finished using it. That’s because plastic takes a very long time to break down in the environment. Wind and water carry plastic garbage to the oceans, where ocean currents cause it to collect in gigantic patches of garbage. Scientists estimated that 8 million tonnes of plastic entered the oceans in 2010.

Did you know? According to a 2016 report, by the year 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish!

Some of the effects of all this plastic waste are easy to see. Beaches are becoming covered in plastic garbage. Birds and other marine animals get tangled up in plastic garbage, become strangled by it and drown. Whales confuse plastic floating in the water for food and eat it.

For a whale, a belly full of plastic can damage their organs and lead to starvation.

But plastic garbage, and its effects on the environment, are not always visible.

Microplastics

In the oceans, waves and sun break down plastic into smaller and smaller pieces. Microplastics are pieces of plastic smaller than 5mm, which is about the size of a sesame seed. This includes particles that are so small, they cannot be seen by the unaided human eye.

Microplastics are everywhere! Scientists have found them not only in the ocean, but in our tap water], in the soil that our food grows in, and even in the remote Arctic. Microplastics can be found in fish and shellfish that we eat, in beer, and in the air. A Canadian study even found them in bottled water.

Where do microplastics come from?

Sometimes microplastic is intentionally added to the products we use. For example, small round plastic pieces called microbeads are added to some toothpastes and bath and body products, to act as exfoliants. These plastic microbeads have now been banned in some countries, including Canada.

But microbeads are only a drop in the bucket of all the microplastics contaminating our environment. Most microplastics break off larger pieces of plastic garbage when exposed to wind, waves, sunlight and/or microbes in the environment. Also, some of the microplastics found in nature are actually microscopic fibres such as nylon or polyester. They are shed by our clothes when we wash them.  These fibres are often too small to be removed in the wastewater treatment plant. Instead, they can end up in the oceans.

Once in the oceans, these microplastics can be ingested by the organisms that live there. Since scientists are only beginning to research this topic, they are not sure exactly what the effects of this are. Some studies have shown that microplastics can be toxic to organisms who eat them. In other studies, the results are less clear. Scientists are researching this topic at this very moment.

Effects of microplastic on human health

With microplastics in our drinking water, in our food, and in the air we breathe… should we be alarmed? The short answer is, we don’t know. In the short term we are probably safe enough. There have not been any scientific studies confirming any risk to human health from microplastics in the environment. But scientists need to do more research on this topic. One issue that cannot be denied is that microplastics are a lot harder to clean up than the larger plastic items they form from. It is easy to pick up a water bottle from the beach, but it’s not so easy once it has broken down into a thousand pieces.

How can you help?

There are two big ways that your own actions can decrease the amount of plastic garbage that enters the environment. First, cut single-use plastic out of your life! Use reusable containers to bring your lunch to school and carry a reusable water bottle. Bring your own bags to the grocery store, and ask for your drink without a straw.

The second thing you can do is to make sure you recycle the plastic you do throw away. Around the world, only 9% of plastic is recycled. In Canada, only 11% of plastic is recycled. We can do better than that!

References

If your clothes aren’t already made out of plastic, they will be (2015)
Quartz

Great Pacific Garbage Patch now three times the size of France (2018)
CNN

8 million tonnes of plastic dumped in oceans every year (2015)
National Geographic

By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans, study says (2016)
Washington Post

Over 1,000 turtles killed every year by plastic waste in the oceans (2017)
Metro News

Yet another dead whale is a grave reminder of our plastics problem (2018)
Forbes

As main meal for sperm whales: plastic debris (2013)
Marine Pollution Bulletin

What are microplastics?

National Ocean Service

Plastic fibres found in tap water around the world, study reveals (2017)
The Guardian

Microplastics may enter freshwater and soil via compost (2018)
Science News

Arctic sea ice is an important temporal sink and means of transport for microplastic (2018)
Nature Communications

Anthropogenic debris in seafood: Plastic debris and fibers from textiles in fish and bivalves sold for human consumption (2015)
Nature

Synthetic particles as contaminants in German beers (2014)
Food Additives & Contaminants

Microplastics in air: Are we breathing it in? (2018)
Current Opinion in Environmental Science & Health

Microplastics found in some Canadian bottled water (2018)
CBC

Microbeads (2018)
Government of Canada

Microplastics Generation: Onset of Fragmentation of Polyethylene Films in Marine Environment Mesocosms (2017)
Frontiers in Marine Science

Pathways for degradation of plastic polymers floating in the marine environment (2015)
Royal Society of Chemistry

Invisible plastic microfibers are just the beginning of what we don’t see (2017)
The Guardian

Should we worry about plastic pollution? (2017)
McGill Office for Science and Society

Only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled (2018)
The Economist

Moving Canada toward zero plastic waste (2018)
Placespeak

Accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. B. 364, 1985–1998 (2009).

Mira Okshevsky

Mira has a Master of Science in Marine Microbiology and a PhD in Nanoscience. She is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, where she studies how bacteria stick together is communities called biofilms. In her free time, Mira enjoys exploring the coves and beaches of her home province of Newfoundland.







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