Plastics. Microplastics. The single greatest polluter our oceans are facing. Significantly heightened talk of our ‘plastic problem’ and ‘the ever-evolving harm to our oceans’ have sparked much concern in recent years.
Wait, so what are microplastics? “Microplastics are small pieces of plastic, less than 5 mm (0.2 inch) in length, that occur in the environment as a consequence of plastic pollution”, according to Britannica.
So where do they come from? What’s their real harm? Let’s first talk about plastic, in a general sense.
Plastic was coined over 150 years ago, as a means to deter from using natural material. “The first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt, who was inspired by a New York firm’s offer of $10,000 for anyone who could provide a substitute for ivory”, according to Science History Institute.
This transition to synthetic versus natural materials for products was extraordinary at the time. No more strain for ivory, wood, metal and stone - humans made it possible to create a means for new products. I’m sure John Wesley Hyatt could never imagine the turbulent brew he had created for humanity 150 years later. The extremity of his creation.
Plastics discarded into our environment can take hundreds of years to decompose. Ranging from cigarette butts (the single biggest source of ocean trash) of ten years, to plastic bottles of 450 years, to fishing lines of 600 years. Now think about these microplastics again. Yes, little by little, plastic will begin to break down, leading to a literal toxic conundrum of said microplastics.
Like mentioned above, microplastics consist of tiny particles of plastic that slightly break down from pre-existing plastics. For example, beauty / health products, clothing and textiles (nylon, acrylic, spandex, etc.), marine sources, cigarette filters -- the list goes on. The size of these particles could feel seemingly innocent, but start thinking about micro on a macro level.
The problematic magnitude of oceanic life is surpassing our ability to combat the problem. This is bigger than ‘let’s stop using straws so we can save the turtles’. This cannot be expunged by solely examining a single micro-element of the whole.
“It is estimated that up to 13 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the ocean each year—the equivalent of a rubbish or garbage truck load worth every minute”, from PEW. Let’s say you have a birthday cake full of decadent sprinkles and your friend knocks over the entire cake. He isn’t going to fix the problem and your ruined cake by picking up one sprinkle. No, he would have to take a step back, see where the mishap was rooted in, and slowly begin to understand how to put your precious cake back together.
Sea life such as fish, turtles, and sea mammals, consume these microscopic plastics, at times resulting in suffocation. In March of 2019 in the Philippines, a local natural history museum got a call about a very distraught looking whale swimming close to shore - it didn’t seem to have much life left. Once the male whale was identified and given an autopsy, more than 88 pounds of plastic were found inside the animals’ stomach.
From inspection of Darrell Blatchley on National Geographic, “‘Plastic was just bursting out of its stomach,’ he said. ‘We pulled out the first bag, then the second. By the time we hit 16 rice sacks—on top of the plastic bags, and the snack bags, and big tangles of nylon ropes, you're like—seriously?’.
His son, who was attending the necropsy, said ‘Dad, how did it even live this long?’”.
His son’s question rings loud in my ears. Take our single-use water bottles, for example. It may not seem detrimental in the moment, but think about the mindless decision to buy a water bottle just once a week. How about the significance within one year?
According to Habits of Waste within a year, “the average American uses 167 disposable water bottles”. 88 pounds of plastic debris was found inside the whale. According to Recycling Today, the average weight of a 16.9-ounce (half-liter) single-serve PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottle of water is 9.25 grams”. When calculations are done, the plastic inside the whale equates to 4,315 empty water bottles.
This is one whale, one situation, 88 pounds of plastic waste. Our seemingly innocent water bottle doesn’t feel so seemingly innocent anymore.
When processing this information, my mind wanders to the entirety of sea-life that are consuming microplastics. This is an inherently simple cycle. We too are involved in the consumption of microplastics.
These plastics travel from our waste consumption, into landfill or worse - tossed straight into the sea, the plastics begin their slow break-down process, sea-life mistakes particles for food and consume these said plastics, commercial fishing, and then wallah - the once thriving salmon is now on our plates, and into our own systems.
So, what do the amount of microplastics look like inside me? An insufferable amount to say the least. “The average human lives for 79 years. Using the current estimate of microplastic in our diets, it equates to 20 kilograms of plastic consumption” from Reuters Graphics. Or in simpler terms, two full mobile recycling bins of microplastics consumed within our lifetime. How satirical.
Just as alarming as our reality is, this cycle is transferring into the pre-existing. Four ultrasounds of healthy mothers just two months ago, found microplastics within the placentas of unborn babies. From The Guardian, “A dozen plastic particles were found. Only about 4% of each placenta was analysed, however, suggesting the total number of microplastics was much higher. All the particles analysed were plastics that had been dyed blue, red, orange or pink and may have originally come from packaging, paints or cosmetics and personal care products.
'It is like having a cyborg baby: no longer composed only of human cells, but a mixture of biological and inorganic entities,’ said Antonio Ragusa, director of obstetrics and gynaecology at a hospital in Rome”. Our consistency of plastic to consumption ratio is obviously evolving at an alarming rate, on the rise to creating said ‘cyborg babies’.
Where else can microplastics stem from? Clothing. Specifically, synthetic fibers such as nylon, spandex, acrylic, and the dreaded polyester, containing polyurethane. Polyurethane is a thin typically layered on top of polyester, to create durability, stretch or a waterproof quality. This is considered toxic, not only for the environment, but for our own bodies. These synthetic fabrics contain many toxins and chemicals, as such releasing chemicals into the body while sweating. Formaldehyde, ammonia, cadmium and chromium, and sulphuric acid, to name a few, are toxins that are incorporated into such synthetic fabrics.
Moreover, since these fabrics are treated so intensely, innately, slight chemical reactions occur when washing clothing. But that being said, the amount of microfibers shed can’t be that bad right? Not exactly. “Recent estimations have assessed that synthetic clothes contribute about 35% to the global release of primary microplastics to the world oceans, thus becoming the main source of microplastics”. According to Nature Briefing, “The release of microplastics from synthetic clothes is mainly caused by the mechanical and chemical stresses that fabrics undergo during a washing process in a laundry machine, which lead to the detachment of microfibres from the yarns that constitute the textile”.
How is the fashion industry contributing to this microplastic tribulation? Significantly. The abundant and unceasing creation of cheap garments using such synthetic fibers feels unalterable by big brands. According to The Sustainable Fashion Forum, “Every time you wash your polyester jumpsuit, it sheds microplastics (plastic fragments less than 5 mm in length) into our water systems. It’s estimated that up to 700,000 microfibers could be released in a single load of laundry”.
Where do these microplastics conglomerate within the ocean? Well they definitely find their way into every crack and crevice in our surrounding waters. The Maldives Archipelago consists of 1,192 islands within the Indian Ocean. “In 1992, the government added one more—an artificial construct that serves as a landfill, where 500 tons of trash are dumped every day”. This island consists majorly of tourists, creating a significant amount more waste than any other within the area. “A single tourist produces almost twice as much trash per day as a resident of the capital city of Malé, and five times as much as residents of the other 200 populated islands”, from National Geographic.
The Maldives are a developing nation that cannot properly manage waste that suffocates the islands. And that’s just the start. Recent analysis has identified the island as having the highest number of microplastics worldwide. Marine biologists have come to realize these microplastics are relatively the same size as many prey consumed by sea life species. When diving deeper into the specific amounts within certain species, “Of 71 trigger fish collected by the researchers, all had plastic in their bellies, on average eight fibers per fish”.
Any other plastic hubs worth mentioning? The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the ‘Pacific Trash Vortex’ covers that question. The name itself makes me quiver a bit. The patch is a zone where waterways soar and join. From the cooler water of the South Pacific and the warmer water from the Arctic, the currents merge, creating an ever-evolving toxic patch of marine debris and plastic.
All debris is almost entirely broken down into microplastics. “80 percent of plastic in the ocean is estimated to come from land-based sources, with the remaining 20 percent coming from boats and other marine sources” from National Geographic. Yes, we are the culprit. The Patch is estimated to be twice the size of Texas, just floating along, a being of its own.
Marine life mistakes much of these plastics as jellies, and fish eggs. Many seabirds become entangled within the dreadful plastic six-packs. We prioritize Budweiser brews just long enough to drink them, then we’re satisfied, and we could care less about the aftermath, the proper disposal of them.
It’s funny how quickly our needs are met, and the dopamine we received diminishes. And then it’s over. Where is the straw you valued when you were sipping your iced-mocha? Where is the plastic bag you desperately needed when you ended up buying way more at the convenience store than you anticipated? Where is the toothbrush that allowed you to cure three cavities?
We will never know where our garbage goes, but we will know how we took care of our waste.
What can we do to combat this self-induced mess? There are always options, no matter how deep the hole is we’ve created. But the important part is making sure we are cognizant of our individual footprint created by seemingly minute decisions.
Look into an option such as the Cora Ball to deter some of your fibers from waterways leading to our oceans. Honestly, the amount of microfibers / microfibers these devices are able to catch aren’t significant enough for my liking, but if you are someone who has a decent amount of synthetic clothing, as well as wash your clothing frequently, this is definitely an impactful purchase. As well, it catches approximately 30% of fibers during each wash. As of now the brand advises throwing fibers into your waste-can, but confirms their continuous research for better options moving forward. The Cora Ball can be recycled, but contact the brand for the best recycling options. Nevertheless, keeping fibers out of our waterways is the top priority. Any action is better than none at all.
But simply put, change your shopping habits, change your plastic habits.
Research a brand or type of fabric. Dive into your personal love affair with clothing and what is important to you when acquiring clothing. Cut down on plastic consumption in all aspects of your life - be cognizant of plastic bottles, films, unnecessary packaging, and single-use coffee cups, to name a few. Educate yourself on the realities of each garment produced. Understand the detriments of synthetic / cheap clothing in all regards.
Hopefully the above has given you reason enough to constantly re-think the decisions you make, even if they may seem too complex in the moment. I promise the slight positive changes you make will alter your relationship with consumption. It’s a beautiful feeling.