Microplastics: what we know and what we don’t

The effects of plastic pollution are being investigated by researchers for years, and since recently the mainstream media addresses this problem as well. I want to emphasize that this attention is a blessing: hopefully it will convince people to stop littering around.

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However, there is another problem coming up, and it actually originates from the plastic pollution we are talking about. Because larger chunks of plastic degrade and breakdown into microplastics. Microplastic particles are smaller than 5 millimetre in diameter. Some of them are so small that they are invisible to the naked eye, which is probably the reason that the media don’t pay attention to it. Only a microscope can make these particles visible. Researchers started just recently inquire microplastics, therefore there is not much known about the effects of microplastics. What is known and unknown about microplastics will be mentioned in this article.

Types of microplastics
First, let’s define microplastics into more detail. There are two official classifications of microplastics: primary microplastics and secondary microplastics.

Secondary microplastics derive from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic over time, on land or in the rivers and sea. Those pieces degrade because of its exposure to UV-sunlight and/or water. Plastic can also be eaten by the shrimplike Orchestia Gammarellus, which can shred a plastic bag in 1.75 million pieces.

There is also an unofficial third category: microplastics as a by-product from wear and tear of items. The microplastics can come from car tires, paint, ropes and synthetic textiles. To illustrate: when somebody puts a synthetic t-shirt in a washing machine, 100.000 microplastic particles flow into the sewage system, and later into the rivers and oceans.

What do we know
One thing is for sure: microplastics are everywhere. From all plastics produced worldwide, just 9% is recycled and 12% is burnt. The other 79% is still somewhere sticking around and will degrade into microplastics. They are found from the deepest seafloor, to ice in the Arctic. The particles are present from the bottom to the top of the food chain. Microplastics have been found in table salt, honey and in 93% of the bottled water brands (surprisingly tap water consists less microplastics). In developed countries, microplastics make up a bigger part of marine plastic pollution than visible marine litter. And these plastics contributes up to 30 percent of the worldwide plastic soup.

Scientists try to investigate if microplastics have effects on animals. One research shows that after exposing Japanese Medaka fish to polymers, the fish suffered from liver stress and have altered gene expression. Mollusks had non-functioning sex organs and a higher mortality rate after being subjected to the chemical substance DPA (makes plastics bottles transparent). Other scientific inquiries state that microplastics can diminish the urge of fish to eat and block their digestive tracts. This can lead to starvation.

What we don’t know, just what we assume
Research about the effects of microplastics on humans is very limited. Considering – due to obvious ethical reasons – that is complicated to let people eat microplastics. Until now, there are only some assumptions, which need to be proven still.

One assumption is that the accumulation of toxins in microplastics could be harmful to humans. Scientist found out that microplastics absorb toxins. Another theory is that the previous mentioned substance BPA could interfere with the human hormonal system. Known is that 93% of people worldwide have BPA in their urine. And some researchers think that DEHP (which makes plastic bottles more flexible) could cause cancer. Another concern is the fish consumption of people. For now, microplastics are only found in the gut of fish, a part of the fish we normally don’t eat. The particles are not found in the eatable tissue of fish – yet.

It is too early to panic, but truth be told, it all doesn’t sound very soothing.

Plastic pollution and in particular microplastics are a very complex problem. Plastic is a magical material which did and do benefit humanity in multiple ways. It is lightweight, cheap, the production is energy-efficient, it can be shaped in any possible form and the applications are endless. We made  progress in the fields of medicine, mechanics, construction and transportation due to the invention of plastic. Some people say that the Allies won the Second World War thanks to the use of plastics. The transportation of their plastic lightweight war equipment was relatively easy. The Axis didn’t have that advantage.

So we can’t just ban plastic. And it will take decades before industrial producers found replaceable materials for their products with similar qualities.

On the short term it is better to invest in infrastructure for collecting and recycling waste, particularly in Asia. Half of worldwide plastic pollution comes just from China, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Waste collecting organizations couldn’t keep up with the high speed economic development, which brought as a side-effect the widespread use of plastic.

Another achievable goal is to ban primary microplastics, like microbeads. Many countries did already, forcing cosmetics companies to phase out the use of microbeads in their products. It is a bit premature, but we can speak of a successful worldwide action in order to protect the environment!

An alternative to get rid of microplastics is an scientific experiment to genetically modify bacteria which eat microplastics. Personally speaking, I think that is just combating the symptoms of our littering behaviour, instead of fighting this behaviour at the root.

Anyway, it is still better than doing nothing. If we don’t attempt to solve this, micro plastics can become a macro problem.

By Edo van Baars



CBC News (2018). Microplastics Found in Most Bottled Water Tested in Global Study. Weblink:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ChHbZOTaXfc

CNN (2016). What Is a Microplastic? Weblink: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjyDHIplvpM

Dudas, Sarah (2018). Microplastics Are Everywhere. TEDx Binghamton University. Weblink: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjsrmFUmyh4

Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell (2018). Plastic Pollution: How Humans are Turning the World into Plastic. Weblink: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RS7IzU2VJIQ

National Geographic (2015). Are Microplastics in Our Water Becoming a Macroproblem? Weblink: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZHCgA-n5wRw

Parker, Laura (2018). We Made It. We Depend on It. We’re Drowning in It. Plastic. National Geographic Magazine (130: 6, p.40-69)

Royte, Elizabeth (2018). A Threat to Us? National Geographic Magazine (130: 6, p.84-87)

Seeker (2016). The New Way Microplastics Are Devastating Marine Life. Weblink: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PD88nTu8TTI

Seeker (2018). Are You Seasoning Your Food With Microplastics? (You Totally Are). Weblink: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZFgpudNSArI

The Story of Stuff Project (2017). The Story of Microfibers. Weblink: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BqkekY5t7KY

Wikipedia (2018). Microplastics. Web link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microplastics



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