Grocery shopping is a part of everyday life that most people don’t think about beyond the items on their food list. However, many of the things you buy, from the packaging to the bags you carry them in, are manufactured with plastics.
In many ways, plastics are a blessing and a curse. For one thing, they make our lives more convenient. For example, plastics are found in our electronic devices, baby diapers, credit cards, utensils, shower curtains and just about any other household item you probably use.
Of course, plastics can be toxic to the environment and life itself, taking years to break down into microplastics that find their way into every crevice of the earth’s surface. Continue reading to learn about microplastics, how far they travel and their effects on our planet.
What are microplastics?
From garbage bags to toothbrushes to the makeup you put on your face, plastic is in just about everything and comes in all shapes and sizes.
Plastic debris and particles that measure less than five millimeters in length are called “microplastics.” For some perspective, sesame seeds or a pencil eraser is about five millimeters.
Because some microplastics, such as microbeads, are so tiny—like the polyethylene particles in health and beauty products—they can easily pass through water filtrations and end up in our rivers, lakes and oceans. This poses significant risks to aquatic species and ecosystems’ overall health and vitality.
The places they will go
The world produces over 300 million tons of plastic waste every year, half of which is designed for single use. However, few studies have been able to recover where it all ends up.
While it’s become common knowledge that plastic particles find easy access to vast bodies of water, research has suggested that wind can also transport microplastics up to 95 kilometers to remote, pristine corners of the world; for example, mountain catchments like the French Pyrenees.
Strong winds and precipitation likely determine how far microplastics can travel, including to major cities. Plastic dust particles have even been discovered in the air we breathe and our drinking water.
Microplastics and associated contaminants like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) linger in our lungs and bodies, leading to inflammation, reproductive issues, cancer and other adverse health effects.
Research has also proven that microplastics—nylon, polyethylene and polypropylene—are widely found in our drinking water. In the United States, about 94% of tap water samples show a high percentage of microplastics. Although the dangers of drinking water with microplastics are unknown, scientists believe that consuming high concentrations can cause GI irritation and alter our gut bacteria and metabolism.
Environmental Impacts of microplastics
When microplastics work their way into the environment, it can negatively affect biodiversity and sometimes other unlikely industries.
Consider that plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris floating in the water and deep-sea sediments. Additionally, it can take up to 500 years for plastic to disintegrate, if at all. For example, plastic bags take 1,000 years to decompose, making the call to ban single-use plastics even more prominent.
Often, turtles, fish and birds eat small pieces of plastic thinking its food, which leads to sickness, death and potentially a decrease in their populations. Studies have also demonstrated that 386 fish species have ingested plastic, of which humans consume 210 species. This can have severe consequences for fisheries around the world.
Likewise, microplastics seep into the soil, affecting flora growth, groundwater and insects vital for land fertility. The agricultural sector may eventually feel the impacts of microplastic contamination, making food production increasingly difficult by polluting the earth’s soils.
A plastic-free future
As more people learn about microplastics and how they affect humans, animals and the environment, an increasing interest in adopting a plastic-free lifestyle has increased. While it’s a difficult transition for most of the population, making slight changes like using reusable grocery bags and products made from biodegradables can pave the way for a plastic-free future.