Plastic is so prevalent in our lives that we don’t even notice it anymore. It is convenient. It is cheap. It is ubiquitous. The unfortunate truth is that more than 70 percent of the plastic we use does not get recycled, and much of this plastic trash gets swept into our oceans from beaches or gets washed into rivers from our streets. An estimated 5 trillion pieces of plastic currently float in our oceans.
Most plastic is easy enough to see, but there is another kind of plastic infiltrating our ecosystems that can easily go unnoticed. These are microplastics, or small particles and fibres of plastic generally measuring less than 5 millimetres.
Originally, microplastics resulted from the physical breakdown of larger plastics, such as plastic bags, food packaging or ropes. However, more recently, there has been an increase in the manufacturing of microplastics, such as pellets, powders and domestic or industrial abrasives. This phenomenon has expanded the occurrence of plastics in our environments and in our seas.
Microplastics have already been found in various types of human food (e.g. beer, honey and table salt). However, most scientific studies have examined microplastics in seafood. Although fish fillets and big fish are two of the main consumed fishery products, these are not a significant source of microplastics because the gut, where most microplastics are found, is not usually consumed. Small fish species, crustaceans and molluscs, on the other hand, are often eaten whole.
These are potential areas of concern when talking about our dietary exposure to microplastics and associated chemical substances. So far the health implications of microplastics on humans seem negligible. However, more research needs to be done.
Regardless of the findings, we already know that our plastic use is increasing and that it is damaging our sea life. Dolphins and whales are getting caught in discarded plastic netting; turtles are eating plastic bags and dying from blockages within their digestive systems. Marine animals are perishing in our trash. But we can turn the tide on the use of plastic.
Microplastics are small particles or fibres of plastic generally measuring less than 5 millimetres. Originally, microplastics were the result of the breakdown of larger plastics, such as plastic bags or food packaging. More recently, manufacturing of microplastics, such as pellets, powders and domestic or industrial abrasives, has increased.
Here are 5 ways to cut our dependence on macro- and micro-plastics:
1. Avoid single-use plastics
Ninety percent of the plastic we use in our daily lives is disposable or single-use plastic: grocery bags, plastic wrap, zipper bags, coffee-cup lids. Single-use plastics are particularly damaging considering that a single plastic bag can take 1 000 years to degrade. These plastics can also degrade into microplastics, smaller pieces that are often mistaken as food by mammals, birds or fish. Simply noticing the prevalence of plastic in our lives is the first step to replacing single-use plastics with reusable options: cloth bags, glass storage containers, silverware, and ceramic mugs.
2. Recognize microplastics in disguise
Many cosmetics and beauty products contain “exfoliants” that are in fact little plastic beads. These microplastics might seem harmless, but it is precisely because of their size that they can slip through water-treatment plants and end up in the ocean where fish often mistake them for food. Try natural exfoliats, like oatmeal or salt, instead.
3. Carry a reusable water bottle
Disposable water and soda bottles are some of the biggest culprits of plastic waste. More than 480 billion plastic drinking bottles were sold globally in 2016. If placed end to end, they would extend more than halfway to the sun! Drink from reusable bottles instead. In places where the water is safe to drink, you can easily refill your bottle.
4. Say no to plastic cutlery, straws, take out containers
Sometimes we are given plastic without even asking for it. Turn down the offer for a straw. Ask restaurants to pack your food in fewer containers for take-out. Tell them that you don’t need any plastic cutlery, and use your own reusable cutlery instead.
This might seem obvious, but the majority of the plastic we use is not recycled. Where the option exists, ensure that the plastic you do use gets recycled, but remember, it is easier to prevent waste than to manage it. (Fao)