Plastic is everywhere | the week

Microplastics permeate the globe from the depths of the ocean to the top of a mountain – and our bodies. Here’s everything you need to know:

What are microplastics?

They are tiny pieces of plastic found in air, water, and soil, and they range from 5 mm – the size of a grain of rice – to less than a micron. Humans have produced more than 8 billion metric tons of plastic since the 1950s, and less than 10 percent of it has been recycled. As a result, huge amounts of plastic waste fill our rivers, oceans and beaches. Plastic does not biodegrade over time – it is constantly breaking down into smaller particles. In addition to bottles, utensils, straws and other single-use plastics, the sources include car tires, cigarette butts, packaging, fishing nets and polyester fabrics, which collectively shed trillions of microfibers. Since scientists first became concerned about microplastics a few decades ago, they were shocked to discover that these microparticles literally cover the world. They are found in arctic snows, in soil samples from Swiss nature reserves, on Mount Everest, and in the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean – 7 miles below the surface. “No place – however remote – is immune,” said Alan Jamieson, a scientist at the University of Newcastle who found plastic fibers in the stomachs of deep-sea creatures. Plastic particles are also increasingly present in our bodies.

Where in our bodies?

A pair of studies unveiled in March and April found microscopic particles in people’s blood and deep in their lungs. In the blood study, a team of Dutch scientists found plastics — including those used to make beverage bottles and packaging — in samples from 17 out of 22 healthy blood donors. In the lung study, researchers from Hull York Medical School in the UK took 13 lung samples from surgical patients and found plastic particles in 11 of them, including samples from deep in the lower lung. Microplastics have been found in stool samples and in the placentas of unborn babies. Elizabeth Salter-Green of the British charity Kim Trust, which focuses on chemical harm, said this latest finding was “extremely concerning”. “Children are born polluted.”

Why plastic in people?

We eat it, we drink it, we breathe it. Trace amounts of plastic made their way into the food chain; Plastic also attaches directly to food from packages and containers. A 2019 analysis by the World Wildlife Fund estimated that people were consuming up to 5 grams of plastic per week — roughly the same amount of plastic in a credit card. Microplastics are found in shellfish, salt, beer, fresh fruit, and especially drinking water. A global study in 2017 found plastic fibers in 83 percent of tap water samples — and bottled water far worse. British researchers also discovered that bottle-fed babies daily ingest millions of microplastic particles that ooze into milk from plastic bottles, a quantity one researcher said left him “completely traumatized”. We also breathe plastic into microfibers that float invisibly in the air, much of which sheds through clothing, fabrics, and other textiles. A 2020 study found that 11 national parks and protected lands in the American West were washed away annually with more than 1,000 metric tons of microplastic particles — the equivalent of 300 million crushed plastic bottles.

How harmful is this?

This is the main question, and the short answer is we don’t know. Now that scientists have discovered microplastic particles in the lungs and blood, Laura Sadowski of Hull York Medical School said, “The next step is, so what? Does it matter?” Research is in its bud. Studies have found that plastics contain chemicals that can act as “endocrine blockers,” meaning they can affect and even mimic hormones; In theory, this means that microplastics in the body may cause cancer, reproductive disorders, chronic infections, autoimmune diseases, obesity, and neurological impairment in developing fetuses and children. The plastics industry argues that its products are largely inert in the body and are disposed of in waste. But many experts tend to agree with Donzo Lee, an environmental engineer at Trinity College Dublin, who says, “I think it’s fair to say the potential risks could be high.”

What can he do?

We need to reduce our massive consumption of single-use plastic and keep what we use out of the environment. In March, representatives of 175 countries agreed to begin work on a global treaty to reduce plastic pollution, designed to be in force by 2024. Its goals include reducing plastic use, promoting recycling, and cleaning up waste. In the US, California just became the first state to embark on an ambitious plan to reduce microplastics, in part by cutting single-use plastics. But those trying to find solutions are swimming against the powerful tide full of microplastics: Global plastic consumption is expected to double over the next 20 years, according to the World Economic Forum. The group says that if there is no change in consumption trends, there could be more plastic in a pound of ocean than in fish by 2050.

The dirty secret of plastic recycling

Americans worried about plastic pollution may feel they’re making a difference when they separate their bottles and containers for recycling — but these efforts may not mean much. Only a small portion of plastic waste is redirected, and this amount is declining even as plastic production rises. Last year, the rate of plastic recycling in the United States fell to less than 6 percent, down from a peak of 9.5 percent in 2014, according to a new report from the groups Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup. The rate fell after China stopped buying US waste plastics in 2017. Environmentalists say the plastics industry has sold the public under the delusion that the plastic is recyclable, when the process is too expensive, and few US facilities have the capacity to do so. Most plastic set aside for recycling ends up in landfills or is incinerated. Accusing petrochemical companies of a “half-century-long campaign of deception,” California attorney general Rob Ponta charged last month with opening an investigation into their role in misleading consumers. Judith Ink of Beyond Plastics said the plastics industry “must stop lying to the public about plastic recycling.” “It doesn’t work, it never will, and no amount of false advertising will change that.”

This article was first published in the latest issue of the week magazine. If you want to read more like her, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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