If there were a list called the Anti-Wonders of the Modern World, the first spot would belong to worldwide plastic mismanagement.
The result of dumping plastic products into landfills and bodies of water does not just have long-term impacts on the planet and its wondrous wildlife.
What we attempt to hide deep in the Earth makes a full circle back to humans.
A study conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Victoria found that the average person unknowingly eats, drinks and inhales more than 70,000 microplastic (microscopic plastic) particles every year.
Although this is an astronomical figure, to say the least, the researchers admitted that their results might have been grossly underestimated.
The scope of the study was limited to plastic remnants found in fish, shellfish, sugars, alcohol, tap and bottled water, and the air.
Based on the limited data that was collected, depending on the sex, age and lifestyle of a person, the annual consumption of microplastics can be as high as 121,000 particles or more, according to the researchers.
How do plastic particles make their way onto our plates?
Sadly, it’s our own fault.
The main culprits behind high concentrations of plastic contaminants in the oceans are large-scale dumping and flushing of microbeads – the exfoliators commonly used in lotions, soaps, and creams.
Also, we are at the end of the food chain.
What's the connection?
Well... Whatever microplastics were eaten by plankton, they make their way up to larger creatures until eventually, we find them in our bellies along with the last night’s swordfish steak.
As for water, no source is safe.
Tap water, bottled water, and anything that is processed in a treatment plant might expose you to varying concentrations of microplastics.
Despite whatever stingiest quality standard tests are performed to ensure consumable drinking water, even Coca Cola has admitted that their production plants may be contaminated with an unknown level of microplastics.
What about the air?
Surely the air is free of solid plastic waste, right?
All we’re breathing is good old fashioned carbon monoxide and ozone; there’s no room for plastic fibers in our lungs.
If you subscribe to this belief, then you are sorely mistaken.
Microplastics aren’t just plastic beads or minuscule leftovers that fall onto the ocean bed. Although plastic takes more than a thousand years to fully degrade (not decompose), the plastic waste found in landfills sloughs off tiny fragments of itself which are easily carried away by the faintest of breezes.
A recent study done on the Pyrenees Mountains of Southern France concluded that more than 300 microplastic particles rain down on every square meter of the mountain range every day. These particles originate from large cities like Paris and travel the entire 860 kilometers to the previously pristine Pyrenees.
So if you live within a 1,000-kilometer radius from the largest plastic wasters on the planet (China, India, the United States, and Indonesia) you’re very much at risk of inhaling large levels of microplastics.
Okay, I’m eating, drinking, and inhaling microplastics. So what?
So it has been established that we consume microplastics at an alarming rate through our diets and by simply breathing...
...but what ill effects do they pose on us?
Alas, this is a question that science has yet to address.
As far as research shows, the effects of microplastics on the marine population have yet to be understood. As for the impacts on human health, Stephanie Wright of the Centre for Environment and Health at King’s College admitted that the link between microplastic consumption and poor health has yet to be established.
This is not to say that plastics are safe to consume.
In fact, the chemical additives that add structure to plastic products like diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP) is a known carcinogen. It can be found in medical devices... and it's apparently not surprising to find needles and IV bags swimming alongside schools of fish and rotting in landfills.
What Can We Do?
Here’s the deal:
If we refuse to use plastic-based products, then we can at least reduce the amount of microplastic pollution.
Although companies and governments are setting up new standards on proper plastic waste management, it’s on us, the consumers, to bring about real change.
Many millennial-led SMEs are re-engineering simple products to suit their eco-conscious clientele. Things like shopping bags, reusable stainless steel water bottles, and wool footwear are all free of plastic and made almost entirely of biodegradable materials.
As the life cycle of these products comes to an end, you can rest assured that your waste will return to the benefit, rather than harm, the planet.
However, for now, we’re stuck with what we’ve done to the Earth, at least for the time being.
The silver lining?
We have not yet reached the point of no return. With the right laws and practices in place, we can reverse the effects of plastic pollution and give our children a more habitable world to enjoy.
Have you made an effort to change your plastic usage? We want to hear about it! Please share in the comments below!