The Threat of Plastic on the Environment Evolves into “Microplastics”

NEW YORK - As if the danger that discarded, non-biodegradable plastics pose to the environment aren’t enough, a new breed is making its presence felt; a dangerous evolution known as “Microplastics.”

Microplastics are not a specific kind of plastic, but rather any type of plastic fragment that is less than five millimeters in length; they enter natural ecosystems from a variety of sources, including, but not limited to, cosmetics, clothing, and industrial processes.

Some Microplastics enter the environment directly as a result of various sources, such as microfibers from clothing, microbeads, and plastic pellets; however, they are also the result of the degradation of larger plastic products once they enter the environment through natural weathering processes. Such sources of secondary microplastics include water and soda bottles, fishing nets, and plastic bags, and much more.

Both types of microplastics are recognized to persist in the environment at high levels, particularly in aquatic and marine ecosystems. And as plastic typically degrades very, very slowly, often over the course of hundreds or even thousands of years, the chances of microplastics being inadvertently ingested or incorporated into the bodies and tissues of a variety of different animals and organisms – including human beings – are on the rise with each and every passing year.

According to a 2014 report, there are approximately 51 trillion pieces of microplastic in the Earth’s oceans, with an estimated weight of 236,000 metric tons. By 2019, that amount has almost certainly increased exponentially. In addition, microplastics on land are often small and light enough that they are able to easily able to migrate around the globe, carried by the wind; microplastics have even been discovered on remote mountaintops, according to a new study. Microplastics are being found in rivers, oceans, soils, and even tap water around the world.

As a result of the spread of microplastics throughout a variety of environments, experts theorize that numerous humans and animals are likely to have consumed the particles at points via food and water; however, currently it is not known if this has any potentially adverse effects upon the health upon living creatures or the ecosystems they inhabit, but scientists are currently conducting research into the issue. But if it turns out that the prevalence of microplastics is indeed a serious health problem, experts say it will be a major one, given how this is turning into a problem through sheer volume alone that will likely touch each and every living thing on the planet.

But the problem is that this is also an issue that is still in its infantsy; given the relatively recent introduction of plastic into our society compared to the age of humanity itself, scientists are still attempting to gauge the scope of microplastics, its possible health effects, and – most importantly – to come up with possible solutions.

Bioplastics – plant-based plastics, as opposed to fossil fuel-based – are a development that many are touting as an effective solution to plastic pollution, as their biodegradable nature is possible solution to the large amounts of microplastic waste in the Earth’s ecosystems. But recent studies have indicated that bioplastics come with their own built-in environmental and health issues that may prevent them from being the answer we’re seeking, and may ultimately be just as harmful to the planet as conventional plastics.

Some researchers have proposed incinerating plastics to use as energy, which is known as energy recovery. As opposed to losing the energy from plastics into the atmosphere in landfills, this process turns some of the plastics back into energy that can be used.

However, as opposed to recycling, this method does not diminish the amount of plastic material that is produced. Therefore, recycling plastics is considered a more efficient solution, especially by increasing education via recycling campaigns. While this would be a smaller scale solution, education has been shown to reduce littering, especially in urban environments where there are often large concentrations of plastic waste. If recycling efforts are increased, a cycle of plastic use and reuse would be created to decrease our waste output and production of new raw materials.
But in order to achieve this, states would need to employ stronger infrastructure and investment around recycling. Some advocate for improving recycling technology to be able to recycle smaller plastics to reduce the need for production of new plastics.