The Plasticine: An Era of Microplastics on EarthDate: 03/31/2023
Microplastics seem like a hot new keyword, but the truth is they’ve been in our products and environment for over 50 years, leading researchers to call our era “The Plasticine”. Read on to learn what microplastics are and why you should do your best to avoid them.
What do you know about microplastics?
Before I started writing this article, I thought I had a pretty good idea of the dangers of microplastics – defined as small, plastic particulates about five millimeters (or 0.2 of an inch) or less – and their prevalence in our environment. Then when I started to dig into the topic a little bit more, I was astonished by just how much there is left to uncover about microplastics! Even researchers agree that, while we have more information on microplastics than ever before, the scope of the problem far outweighs the number of studies and prevention measures we humans are applying to solve our own mess.
That’s why I need to get this article out today. More people need to be thinking about plastic, microplastics, and nanoplastics, and how to avoid them. More people need to be spreading awareness about their harmful effects, prevalence, and immensity since…the more focus we put on this issue the more potential heads we can put together to reduce the amount of plastic in everything we touch–from our food, to our water, to our own bodies.
I realize it is not much to share with you everything I’ve found about microplastics, but it is something. Hopefully you’ll find enough fuel in this article to write your own, spread more awareness on socials, or dig further into the research of microplastic degradation and prevention.
So, without further hesitation, let’s talk about how serious of a problem microplastics are for this planet (and for each other), as well as how we can do our best to avoid them in our regular, everyday lives.
First off, I want to ask: what are microplastics?
What are Microplastics?
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, microplastics are “small plastic pieces [tiny particles] less than five millimeters in diameter” (or 0.2 inches) that have been found in almost everything we see in our environment–from our beach sand, to the very depths of the ocean, to the tops of mountains. For example, microplastics have been found in…
- …Antarctic Sea Ice
- …The Guts of Marine Animals in the Deepest Ocean Trenches
- …The Beaches of Uninhabited Islands
- …Human Drinking Water Across the Globe
Basically, their prevalence in our life makes them almost like the new atom, making up our bodies of water and land, and our own bodies as well. They can even end up in the food we consume…you may have even bitten into some ‘delicious’ microplastics already today, without even knowing it.
That said, not all microplastics are created equal–which is why you’ll find most of these materials are separated into two groups: primary and secondary microplastics. Primary microplastics include any plastic particle designed for commercial uses, i.e. to be sold. Things such as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, clothing, and other manufactured materials would be considered in this category, whereas secondary microplastics would include plastic particles that have been broken down from larger plastic items (like water bottles).
Although many of these breakdown processes happen via human manufacture, National Geographic says this breakdown is most often caused by external environmental factors like ocean waves and the sun’s radiation. Indeed these processes often result in plastic particles which are smaller than one micro millimeter in length, which are called nanoplastics, and which are more easily absorbed by living organisms.
Whatever the case may be: microplastics are microscopic, and come in different sizes, shapes, and forms–like microbeads for example. If you don’t know, microbeads are tiny polyethylene plastic added to health and beauty products, cleansers, and even some toothpastes. No two pieces of microplastic are exactly the same either – as we will discover later – since each has a different makeup of chemicals, dyes, and fillers, and have likely absorbed more as they’ve latched onto different elements in our environment. The smaller these particles are, the more difficult it is for us to prevent such substances from further consuming the makeup of our planet.
If microplastics easily dissolved and left nothing behind, this might not be an issue for humanity; but the truth is that plastic does not break down into so-called ‘harmless molecules’. Indeed, the NG article referenced above goes on to say that plastic will take hundreds or thousands of years to decompose. This is a huge issue when we consider that these particles have infiltrated every part of our planet. Still, a small silver lining is that most microplastics aren’t purposefully shed into all areas of our environment–with the exception of single-use plastics. Most often, microplastics end up in our soils, waters, and bodies because of storm carriage, water runoff, large winds, and other natural movements of the earth.
So how has the problem gotten so big over something so small?
Well, part of it has to do with when we even discovered microplastics were a problem!
Are microplastics new?
Nope. Turns out, microplastics have been around just as long as plastic itself (which was invented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland), with the United Nations Environment Programme stating that a big portion of these plastics – known as microbeads – have been in personal care products for at least 50 years. The amount of plastics in these products have only been increasing, often replacing natural components altogether.
However it wasn’t until about 1972 that a famed oceanographer named Edward Carpenter discovered what we now know as microplastics in the Atlantic Ocean (specifically, the Sargasso Sea). This is an area of the ocean that branches together several strong currents which we may assume brings refuse from other parts of the planet into its tidal ‘orbit’–hence why it was so clear to Carpenter in the early 70s. As he wrote at the time:
“The increasing production of plastics, combined with present waste-disposal practices will probably lead to greater concentrations on the sea surface.”
And he was right: as of 2014, Marcus Eriksen and fellow researchers collected data from 24 oceanic expeditions to discover there are more than 5 trillion pieces of micro, nano, and regular plastic in the sea, weighing in at over 250,000 tons. Indeed, some sources report that global rates of plastic waste are expected to triple by 2060, while recycling rates for plastic stay stuck at about five to just under ten percent. Others have done the math for us: this means by 2100, microplastic concentrations in our marine environments alone could multiply by 50…and that’s not counting land and atmospheric data!
Are microplastics new?
While we know the main answer to this question (plastic comes from human manufactured products), it is helpful to note where microplastics are most commonly found so that we have a better chance of avoiding them–and of learning how to get rid of them.
While the most common plastics in marine environments and on land come from things like synthetic clothing, food and beverage packaging, cigarette butts, and single-use plastics, these plastics are also released into our environments via bigger motions, such as treated wastewater release or sewage-based fertilizer use. That’s why here I want to break down the different ways micro and nanoplastics end up in our food, water, air, and bodies, so that we have the knowledge to fight back against an all-consuming microplastic tide. Let’s take a look.
How do microplastics end up in our…
…Food and Water?
According to most estimates on the subject, microplastics get into our food and water through a combination of negligence and innocence. Truly, a small farm purchasing fertilizer for their next crop might not know that the sewage-based product they bought is full of microplastics. Someone in the fishing industry might not have any choice but to use plastic nets, lines, and tools–since they are of course cheaper to buy. Still, there are other producers who know the dangers of microplastics in the environment, and who ignore the plastic off-shed of their own manufacturing process and products. Thankfully, it is more and more likely these corporations will be held accountable through litigation as different research comes to light–such as in response to the discovery that microplastics are present in human blood as of May 2022.
All that said, the microplastics that we end up consuming through our food and water get there through a variety of methods, products, and packaging, including:
- Unfiltered Water. Whatever water we drink, unless we use proper filtration methods, it will likely contain micro or nanoplastics since the average municipal water treatment plant cannot catch all plastic particles unless properly equipped. Indeed, this study on human microplastics consumption shows that people who met their daily recommended water intake using tap water ingest about 4000 particles annually, with bottled water consumers ingesting more than 90,000 microplastics annually. Unfortunately for us, the researchers admit these numbers are likely under estimates and do not account for the total consumed microplastics per year through inhalation and food (about 74,000 to 120,000 depending on age and sex).
- Agricultural Fertilizer. According to a 2022 study by the Environmental Working Group, organic sewage sludge (or the byproduct of treated wastewater from municipalities, and often what is used as fertilizer for tons of crops in the US and Europe) has contaminated almost 20 million acres of US cropland with PFAs. As this substance is spread across farmland, the microplastics that have not been filtered out through the water treatment process are left to settle into the earth. As they do not degrade, these microplastics surround and are absorbed by multiple seasons of crop yields, with one recent study discovering microplastics about 35 inches below the surface from sewage sludge that had been spread 34 years ago. Regular plowing and cultivating only exacerbates the problem, while surrounding soil is susceptible to the toxic chemicals that leach into the soil from the microplastics.
- Fruit and Vegetable Crops. A study from 2020 discovered a host of micro and nanoplastics in supermarket fruits and vegetables in the study area (Italy). Of the fruits and vegetables tested, results showed apples to be the most contaminated with plastic-associated chemicals, while carrots had the highest levels of microplastics. As hinted with fertilizer use, vegetable, grain, and fruit crops are liable to absorb nanoplastic particles through tiny cracks in their roots, meaning the resulting harvest is at risk of absorbing miniscule plastics that are around 1000 to 100 times smaller than one of our blood cells! Thankfully, another analysis has revealed that the plastics found here do not travel beyond the plant roots, with super low concentrations found in plant leaves. That means leafy veggies like lettuce and cabbage might be safer to eat, whereas root vegetables likely contain higher levels of microplastics.
- Fish (and Fishing). While there is a ton of research available on this subject, I’ll mention one study which found that 80% of the bait fish used to catch tuna had high levels of microplastics in their stomachs, while a hugely prevalent source of microplastics in our oceans are nets and lines from all kinds of fishing craft. Another study showed that when fish are exposed to microplastic particles for a long period of time, they experience decreases in growth and reproduction. This contributing factor provides even more proof that our marine life – edible or not – are just as full of microplastics as we humans have become. They, too, ingest microplastics through their food and water. Certainly, a 2021 investigation found that three-quarters of fish species on the market had traces of microplastics in their systems.
- Food Packaging. More research is currently being done on this subject, but it has been found that a significant portion of microplastics in the human blood system came from the specific plastic polymer types used in food packaging.
Through evaporation, it is likely we are right now breathing in part of the estimated 24.4 trillion microplastic fragments known to the earth’s upper oceans–and that’s not counting the whole southern hemisphere! That’s because microplastics are absorbed through the consumption of plastic-contaminated food and water, but also through the air we breathe–with some researchers suggesting the yearly atmospheric deposits in the US is equivalent to the plastic particles of 5 billion water bottles. Imagine trillions of particulates raining down like dust on our streets, houses, cars, and heads!
In our own homes and in public, we also inhale these microplastics from the fibers shed from synthetic clothing and carpets. Indeed another study showed that these fibers accounted for almost all of the microplastics collected from a series of air samples in urban and sub-urban locales. That means we are literally breathing in petrochemicals anytime we inhale!
Finally, researchers have learned that microplastics (and plastic in general) releases greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, which also interferes with the ocean’s ability to capture and store carbon. We are always thinking about cows and methane, but it turns out microplastics in our oceans – through their process of slow degradation – release 76 metric tons of methane into our atmosphere annually–all of which we eventually breathe in.
In 2021, microplastics were discovered in the feces of newborn babies and in human placentas. In 2022 microplastics were found in human blood for the first time. Later the same year, researchers discovered microplastics in human breast milk. To date even more discoveries are coming to light about how prevalent microplastics are in our bodies. So how are these plastics sinking so deep?
We’ve hinted at consumption and inhalation being the top factors by which microplastics enter our bodies – meaning that as microplastics infiltrate each layer of our food chain and water supply, we will be more and more prone to microplastics consumption.
Still, I want to quickly break that down a bit more before we explore the true danger of microplastics.
Basically, microplastics – in their slow, almost-eternal process of breaking down – create their own microscopic ‘chemical spills’, leaking heavy metals, pesticides, pharmaceutical agents, PFAs and PCBs into water and soil. Even if these chemicals weren’t present in the plastic at time of manufacture, the fact that microplastics are strangely absorptive means they can effectively accumulate these chemicals, which then travel with them, variously infiltrating other ecosystems with toxins–including the human body.
Translation? Micro and nanoplastics are getting into our body as we eat, drink, and simply exist in the world. These microplastics are broken down into nanoplastics floating through our bodies and entering deeper into the differing aspects of our functioning systems, like our blood streams. I’ll talk about it in a moment, but this can have myriad detrimental effects, particularly on our immune systems!
From this alone, I barely have to ask…
Are microplastics dangerous?
Yes, to us, to animals, and to our environment. Recall, they are ultra-persistent and are near-impossible to remove from whatever organism they inhabit. As well, microscopic plastic fragments have been detected in farm animals, fish, birds, whales, seals, and humans, posing a completely pervasive threat for every living thing on this planet. Close observation at a government level has shown that animals (which I take to extend to humans) accumulate microplastics most often in their digestive system and tissues, leading to impacts on growth, movement, eating behavior, reproduction, inflammation, and life expectancy–more on that in a moment.
Harmful microorganisms like viruses and bacteria are also known to live on microplastic surfaces, posting even more of a threat to the humans or animals that consume them–particularly since by ‘hitching a ride’ with microplastics, these organisms are protected from filtration methods like UV radiation. Scientists are even describing a new disease based on these findings: Plasticosis, a disease directly caused by the vast amounts of plastic waste in our environment. So says a recent article on the subject:
“While the disease has so far only been identified in the digestive tracts of seabirds, the scale of the problem suggests it could be widespread in other species and different parts of the body.”
Obviously, we can no longer deny that microplastics are impacting our own health, and that of the plants and animals that reside on this earth with us.
Do microplastics impact human health?
Yes. Not only do microplastics gather viruses and bacteria, but they act as great transporters for these microorganisms into our bodies. Once these plastics are in our bodies, they continue their toxic degradation, transforming into nanoplastics that are small enough to enter our cells–giving these viruses a direct pathway to our precious organs. In studies with fish, scientists are learning that nanoplastics can and do transfer from the gut into the bloodstream and brain. Much is the same with humans, at least, according to this recent study, which shows that nanoplastic particles can be transferred into the human bloodstream just as easily.
That said, many articles and studies admit that the impacts of microplastics on human health are not yet fully understood. And yet, even the small sample of research I did to create this article makes an excellent case for the harmful ways that microplastics impact human health. Here are just a few examples I came across, which taken together are more than enough reasons to want to avoid microplastics as much as possible!
- The chemicals found in manufactured plastic have been correlated with a broad range of health issues such as heart disease, cancer, and even poor fetal development.
- High levels of microplastics ingestion have been found to induce cell damage. Such damage may lead to inflammation and allergic reactions.
- In tests of water, seafood, and salt consumption, it was found that ingested amounts by participants (in their regular diet) could potentially trigger cell death and cause oxidative stress, cell wall damage, and undesirable immune responses.
- Academics and medical professionals in this niche suggest that the presence of microplastics in our veins may play a role in damaging vein walls, leading to blockages over time (just like cholesterol), and are calling for research into ways to remove microplastics from the human body.
- From this study we know that microplastics we ingest may cause an imbalance in our gut biome, which can contribute to higher potential for gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS or inflammatory bowel disease (a direct link has yet to be established in this case, however).
And that’s not all. Thanks to this article, I learned about some of the more comprehensive reviews that have been done on the damage that microplastics do to the human body and system, authored by a man named Matt Simon.
Through his explorations of present research, we now know that…
- The average person might have about 470 types of microplastic in their lungs.
- Microplastics contain and carry endocrine-disrupting chemicals like PFAs (which I write about here), which affect the human ability to produce and synthesize hormones.
- Harmful chemicals from microplastics can affect egg and sperm cells from a young age, meaning they may impact familial health for generations.
Further evidence for the toxicity of microplastics to humans come from studies like this, which support the findings of inflammation, lesions, and cell stress caused by micro and nanoplastics depicted in the study infographic below:
Other more expansive study reviews show us that microplastic spread can even lead to adverse health effects like: respiratory distress and autoimmune disease, bronchial reactions and chronic bronchitis, lower cell viability, and even hypersensitivity. Unfortunately, these same studies indicate just how difficult (and often near-impossible) it is to remove these nano-toxins from the human body, and especially our lungs. They do however mention that it is unlikely that microplastics enter via our skin–only nanoparticles of plastic are small enough to cross that barrier and therefore pose the greatest threat to human health.
So what do we do about microplastics?
What is being done about microplastics?
Now that humans are finally realizing the dangers of microplastics, there is some great and important breakthrough work being done to reduce, prevent, and eradicate microplastics from earth’s ecosystem. You may even see headlines cropping up every now and again stating that a bug or some other micro organism will help us in our fight against microplastics, and I’m happy to report that most of these headlines are true.
So, although the problem remains large, there is yet hope–and it lies with the incredible people behind the research I mentioned today.
In fact, I don’t want to leave any of you with the notion that humans aren’t capable of cleaning up their own messes…as slowly as we may proceed; which is why I want to bring up a few points of positivity on the horizon of microplastics legislation, research, and reduction:
- Canada has banned microbeads in commercial cleansers and toothpastes. In 2018, the UK did the same.
- In 2017, the European Commission signaled an intention to restrict ‘intentionally added’ microplastics (however, not much progress has been made, according to this article).
- The NOAA Marine Debris Program is leading the effort to research microplastics through sample collection and testing of sediment, sand, and surface water.
- In 2021, Maine created an extended producer responsibility program for product packaging to push manufacturers to reduce unnecessary plastics in packaging, and to improve recycling protocols. Other states have since followed suit!
- Microplastic degradation is a big course of study with lots of researchers focusing on how to break down microplastics and dispose of them properly. Some studies focus on highly-technical chemical processes, while others focus more on the natural ways in which the environment is already responding to microplastic decomposition–like this study of red clams!
- By the end of 2023, California will require microplastics monitoring for drinking water, and is working on setting a limit for such levels to protect human health. This would be a world first, according to this podcast on the subject.
If you take a look into water filtration as well, you’ll see there is a huge push towards the development of new filtration technologies and options, such as the high-efficiency system described in this article, or the membrane filtration method described here.
These efforts, among many others, are just the beginning. We must each take an individual role in preventing microplastics in our own bodies, and in the environment around us. Here are just a few final tips for how we can come together to accomplish the impossible.
How can we avoid microplastics?
The reality is, microplastics are unavoidable–but of course we can do our very best to reduce the amount of microplastics that enter our systems through conscientious eating, drinking, and living. Plus when you actually look, there are interesting research directions that give us even more insight on how to avoid microplastics–for example, this study I found discovered that the concentrations of microplastics in soil samples of many crops was ten percent lower for both lettuce and wheat.
So in this context, what exactly can we do to minimize microplastic use in our day-to-day life?
From the findings I mentioned above, you might already be looking for all natural cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, as well as companies with safe product packaging standards. Obviously anything in a plastic or petro-chemically based containers are off-limits here. Fair warning though: it might shock you to realize just how much plastic is in the packaging we use for everything we buy!
That’s why I always try to buy glass, steel, porcelain, paper, bamboo, or other plastic-free options where possible. The added benefit of this is that you will end up buying more whole foods with healthy fats and high-quality proteins–though we know from above that even these have likely been contaminated with micro or nanoplastics. However, where you do have to purchase plastic-contained products, make sure you recycle the plastic responsibly since – according to the research I’ve come across, recycling practices are really the only sustainable measure for reducing microplastics in our environment.
Where cosmetics are concerned, I would go for products which advertise themselves as natural and organic to start, but to keep your eyes open for lines that say BPA-free or oxybenzone-free. Staying away from any cosmetics with microbeads is a must! This is also a good time to mention you should avoid synthetic materials for your sheets, clothes, furniture, and carpets where possible, to avoid the shed that can so easily accumulate in our airways.
I love the advice I’ve seen from others ‘in the know’ online, who say that in our efforts to avoid microplastics, we should work to avoid our overall toxic burden by curtailing our exposure to things like contaminated water, EMFs, and indoor air pollution. A general increase in attention to our health is essential here, and can include boosting your natural detox pathways through popular rehabilitative protocols like infrared saunas, vitamin therapy via IV, PEMF therapy, or detox-boosting supplements, probiotics, and antioxidants.
Last, and perhaps most importantly, to avoid more microplastics we need to take special care with the water we are drinking. No more bottled water–only steel or glass refillable bottles as I discuss in this article, and good water filtration habits (as I discuss in Part One and Part Two of my water filtration series). To summarize, because Reverse Osmosis filtration features an incredibly small pore size – through which water travels – it is best for your at-home drinking water and home filtration systems since it completely separates all solids from water. Whatever filter you should choose (following your own research), surveys say that you can remove microplastics in tap water if the system uses a filter with pore sizes smaller than 2.5 microns, which includes carbon filters and distillation systems.
With all that known…is there anything else we can do to change the course of humanity towards being totally plastic-free?
How do we end the era of microplastic?
According to Matt Simon, we must ‘fundamentally renegotiate our relationship’ with plastic to reduce microplastics exposure. That means doing much more than changing our consumption habits. He says our efforts should involve ‘holding corporations responsible for planetary vandalism’. Indeed such litigation has become a hot topic in judicial communities, as is described quite well in this recent press release from international law firm, RPC. I’m really excited to keep my eye out for big progressions in this type of law, since it directly affects my health, and that of my family and friends.
The United States being a top generator of plastic pollution, our committing to individual and state actions can also go a long way–so if that’s your field of work, thank you! Yet, committing to efforts toward things like more international plastics treaties (like the Global Plastics Treaty from the UN) will affect the issue on a grander, more global scale–hopefully with our government doing much more than others to set a great example, and to make up for our share of the mess.
Until then, I am going to keep doing everything I can to share what I know about microplastics research, and encourage you to do the same. I recycle, purchase plastic-free, and continue to share what I find with friends and family (like you!). Why? Because I really do believe it’s a big subject matter that we can all tackle together.
That’s why if you have questions like I did, it’s great to use your brain powers for good: to eradicate microplastics for our generation and the next! Buy conscientiously, protest, donate…whatever is within your means and passion. Plus if you have questions about what I wrote about today, I would love to hear them–maybe I can write a second part to this article based on what you have to say.
As always, thank you for reading, and for committing to wellness and beauty (as well as fashion, travel and food) through my blog. It’s wonderful to have such kindred spirits here alongside as I share my life experiences and health discoveries with you all. My very best to you,
And all my love,
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