We’re All Eating Plastic!

Does that not scare you?

The amount of plastics in our oceans has long been cause for serious concern, causing habitat damage and the death of marine life. Plastic contamination has now reached epidemic levels, with particular concern surrounding microplastics.

What Are Microplastics?

Any plastic particle less than 5mm in diameter is classified as microplastic. There are two types of microplastic – primary and secondary microplastic.

Primary microplastics are small plastic particles that are intentionally manufactured. They consist of manufactured raw plastic material that can be found in cosmetics, facial wash, scrubs, detergents and toothpaste. New research has found that the glitter in cosmetics and stationary products contribute to the number of microplastics in the oceans – microbeads and glitter are too small to be filtered in the sewage treatment process, and they therefore enter easily into the environment.

Secondary microplastics originate from the breaking down of larger plastic items into smaller particles in the environment. This happens through the photodegradation of mismanaged waste such as discarded plastic bags; or from unintentional losses such as fishing nets.

They’re Tiny. Should We Be Worried?

Plastics are designed to be highly durable, indigestible and non-degradable. This means that they break down very slowly, or not at all. The majority of the world’s plastics end up in the garbage heap and in rivers, and eventually in our lakes and oceans. Large pieces of plastic float across oceans and sometimes collect to form garbage patches, such as the Great Pacific garbage patch – a vast “plastic soup” of waste floating in the Pacific Ocean. These cause physical damage – and very often, death – to marine animals.

Beach at Teluk Bahang littered with waste.

The biggest problem, however, is microplastics. They are mistaken for food by marine animals and are ingested, consequently blocking their digestive tracts, resulting in low levels of oxygen and reduced energy levels.

Some plastics are so tiny that they become embedded in the animal’s tissues, and are passed along the food chain. Some eventually find their way into humans. The smaller the size of the plastic particle, the likelier they are to cross biological barriers – such as cell membranes – and cause tissue damage. The human gut does not contain bacteria capable of breaking down microplastics, and it seems that human stomach acids are not able to break down microplastics either.

What Do Microplastics Do To Us?

In 2017 news broke that plastic particles were found in 90% of sea salt and table salt. The study estimates that the average adult consumes approximately 2,000 pieces of microplastics per year through salt.

The majority of the world’s plastics end up in the garbage heap and in rivers, and eventually in our lakes and oceans.

Scientists believe the microplastics are coming from microfibre and single-use plastics, such as water bottles. According to the UN, every year, up to 12.7 million tonnes of plastics enter the world’s oceans; this is equivalent to dumping one garbage truck of plastic per minute into the sea.

In 2018 the first report on microplastics being found in human faeces was published. The study was examined eight participants from Europe, Japan and Russia and found microplastics, ranging from 50 to 500 micrometres in size, in all of the participants’ faeces.

Based on this study, scientists estimate that more than 50% of the world’s population may have microplastics in their faeces; a large-scale study is needed to confirm this postulation. Scientists also claim that microplastics in nano-size particles are capable of entering the blood stream and lymphatic system, and may even reach the liver. Further research is needed to understand their effect on human health.

Sea turtles mistake floating plastic bags for jellyfish, their natural prey.

Time for Action

While there is not much we can do about the microplastics that are already in our environment, we can prevent this problem from getting worse. At the national level, the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment, and Climate Change has drafted a Roadmap Towards Zero Single-use Plastic 2018-2030, with the aim of deflecting the current rampant usage of single-use plastics to a more sustainable pathway by 2030.

Closer to home, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) is the first public institution to have spearheaded the initiative to ditch single-use plastics. Their flagship student-led sustainability project, “The White Coffin”, steered a movement in 2007 to rid the campus of polystyrene food containers. Consequently, the Penang state government introduced the “No Plastic Bag Day” state-wide ban on free plastic bags in 2009; a decade later, single-use plastic bags were disallowed at shopping malls on Mondays even if shoppers were willing to pay the 20 sen fee. Many states have since taken similar initiatives.

Responding to the needs of scientific data and innovation, the Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies (CEMACS) at USM has made plastics and microplastics pollution in the ocean one of its research thrust areas. It works alongside international bodies such as Unesco’s IOC Sub-Commission for the Western Pacific (WESTPAC) to find solutions to combat marine plastic and microplastics pollution, in line with achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 14: Life Below Water.

As individuals, we can make a difference by reducing the amount of plastic that we use – single-use disposable plastic products and packaging such as bottled water, plastic straws and so on.

For every product made from single-use plastic, there is almost always a reusable alternative, for example reusable water bottles instead of disposable bottled water; bringing our own reusable bags when shopping; and using tiffin carriers or own containers when buying food.

This can reduce the amount of plastic waste going into the environment, and limit the amount of plastics we are exposed to on a daily basis. Less plastics, less contamination to the environment. Every little bit helps.


References

  • Lusher A. (2015) Microplastics in the Marine Environment: Distribution, Interactions and Effects. In: Bergmann M., Gutow L., Klages M. (eds) Marine Anthropogenic Litter. Springer, Cham.
  • Karami A, Golieskardi A, Keong Choo C, Larat V, Galloway TS, Salamatinia B. (2017) The presence of microplastics in commercial salts from different countries. Sci. Rep. 7:46173.
Dr Norlaila Mohd Zanuri is a marine biology scientist and senior lecturer at the Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia.



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