#BeatPlasticPollution: The Unintended Consequences of Plastics

By Anissa Ratna Putri - Juni 02, 2018

The World Environment Day (June 5) is in the corner! The issue that they concern this year is #BeatPlasticPollution. Let's see what it is all about and why it matters to raise the awareness of plastic pollution.
Dagupan, Philliphines. Photo from OrbMedia.
Nowadays we can easily see plastics with anyone anywhere. Check your today's snack: are they wrapped in a plastic packaging? Or maybe the ice coffee you had this afternoon, do they use plastic cups and plastic straws? How about your groceries - does the staff offer you plastic bags to carry them?

Most likely, the answer to these questions will be a 'yes'.

Over the past 50 years, world plastic production has increased 20x from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014, and about 50% of the plastic produced are disposed of after a single-use.

What do this numbers mean to you?

The world is evolving to provide a more convenient way for people to consume. Yes. But there is a consequent to the convenience that you've got from plastics: the plastic waste.

Though using plastic in our daily life, we probably not fully aware that it might cause harm to us. The clothes from synthetic polyester that you wear - it is pretty much using the same material as the plastic bottle that you use to drink. Thus, these synthetic fibers release a small fraction of microplastic every time they are washed. Guess where those micro plastic headed? The river and the ocean, sure do! Let's also take a look at our daily waste of plastics - plastic bag, for example. If the plastic bag that we throw to the garbage bin somehow leak to the body of water (river/ocean), the sun might break it down into smaller particles that will be very difficult - if not impossible - to degrade in the environment. It will stay as microplastics, adding more and more microplastics in the environment - which one day its fraction might be too small to be filtered and is possible to end up entering the water that we consume everyday!

Consuming plastic in your water doesn't sound good, isn't it?
Now, are you interesting enough to read on? Let's see what this #BeatPlasticPollution is all about.

Global production, use, and fate of plastics (1950 to 2015; in million metric tons). Source: Geyer et al. (2017)
The discarded plastic in the land are usually treated by landfilling - according to Ellen MacArthur's research, 40% of plastic packaging discarded are piling up in the landfill, creating a huge pyramid of waste. Other than that, it is also worth to note that annually, 8 million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean - which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck into the ocean per minute. To understand better how much we've been dumping the plastics, let's meet The Garbage Patch or also called 'Plastic Gyres'.

Gyres are the centers of convergence of multiple currents in the ocean. There are five major oceanic gyres in the world located in North and South Pacific, North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean. These gyres form when ocean currents create circular water movement, allowing things to congregate in the middle. This is when plastics, and other junks in the ocean, enter and create Garbage Patch/Plastic Gyres.
Map of Garbage Patch/Plastic Gyres from Blue Growth

Although many different types of trash enter the ocean, plastics is the majority of marine debris found in the water. Most likely, it is because of the amount of plastic we used and disposed of and because of the fact that plastics do not biodegrade - it breaks down into smaller pieces instead. The Garbage Patch itself made up of tiny bits of plastic called microplastics - which derived either from the breakdown of macroplastics through UV (i.e. from break down of plastic bags) or from the microplastics material we used in everyday life (i.e. toothpaste). In the Garbage Patch, total-mass-wise, 92% of the debris is macro and mega plastics, while object-count-wise, 94% of total debris are microplastics. Here is a quote from those who got the chance to see the garbage patch/plastic gyres first hand:

"Yet as I gazed from the deck at the surface of what I ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic. It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of the day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments."                                                                                                      
--Capt. Charles Moore, discoverer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Vacha Dam, Bulgaria, 2009. Photo courtesy of Dimitar Dilkoff. Taken from Sott
Nusa Lembongan, Bali, Indonesia, 2018. Photo courtesy of Nick Phumprey. Taken from The Coral Triangle
Recently, the world is shocked by studies from OrbMedia saying that plastics contaminate the tap water and even bottled water in several tested countries of the world. Tap water was tested in the US, Europe, Ecuador, Lebanon, Uganda, India, and Indonesia - showing the US with the highest contamination. Bottled water tested was the one from US, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, Lebanon, Kenya, India, China, Thailand, and Indonesia. The test includes 259 bottles from 19 locations in 9 countries across 11 different brands.  It is said that the researchers found twice as many as plastic particles from bottled water, compared to the tap water.

There are many routes for microplastics to enter the bottled water. According to the researcher from Story of Stuff, plastic microfibres is airborne - thus, it is possible to come out of the fan, or from the synthetic fibers of workers' clothes. The data from the OrbMedia research suggests contamination is at least partially coming from the packaging and/or the bottling process itself. One thing to note: the research is not yet published under scientific journal and currently criticised by - of course - the bottled water company. However, WHO has noticed this contamination of plastic as emerging area of concern.

The presence of micro plastic in our tap water, on the other hand, is a wake-up call to the fact that the hills, rivers, lakes, wells in the land - places where we collect tap water - most likely already contaminated by plastics. There are many possibilities of sources: airborne microplastics, microplastics from washed synthetic fibers, or secondary microplastics from the break down of our daily plastic waste. Either way, it already found its way to our tap water.

Plastic fibres in tap water all over the world. Graphic by The Guardian. Data from OrbMedia.
Graphic by Statista. Taken from Forbes. Data source from OrbMedia
Earlier research of plastic contamination was learning about plastic contamination through seafood. In 2015, researchers found that 25-28% of marine fish tested in markets in Makassar, Indonesia and California, U.S.A had plastic and textile fibers in their guts. In the US, eating plastics through fish can be avoided by having the fish fillet. But that's not the case for people in Indonesia that mostly eating fish as a whole. Researcher nowadays is studying whether chemicals in plastics can be transferred to the meat.

Another interesting and disturbing contamination you might want to know: in 2013, microplastics was found in sugar and honey. Nope, we cannot escape it. 
For compilation of micro plastic in our daily life, check here
"We know plastics are building up in marine animals and this means we too are being exposed, some of us every day. Between the microplastics in water, the toxic chemicals in plastics and the end-of-life exposure to marine animals, it's a triple whammy." 
- Jacqueline Savitz of campaign group Oceana

So plastic is now not only polluting the environment - but also entering the food and drink that we consume. 
Should we worry about this?

Truth is, the real impact of digesting micro plastic for humans is not yet identified - more and more research are needed. But one existing scientific research from European Food Safety Authority in 2016 shows the possibility of plastic particles interacts with your body in some different ways.

It is said that 90% of microplastic particles consumed might be excreted without leaving any impression to the body. The remaining 10%, however, might be entering the intestinal wall or body's hepatic portal vein. It might even enter the bloodstreams and then lodges in the kidneys or liver, according to 2016 report by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation. The size of the particles does matters to what happens next in our body.

Graphic from OrbMedia. Data from UN FAO
Though the research shows there is a possibility for microplastic to be absorbed into our body - particularly when it is break down into smaller particles called nano plastics - the health effects remain unknown. "Plastic is suspected to interact with the immune system, to cause oxidative stress and changes to the DNA" - as quoted from UN FAO. But, the same source mentioned that it is safe to state that microplastics does not seem to have a food safety threat. That said, there are many knowledge gaps regarding plastics in human bodies that should be studied further, such as toxicological data of commonly ingested plastic or the distribution and absorption of nano plastic particles within the tissues and organs of the human body. Therefore, we might not need to fully worry for now - but we should remain alert that, those plastics we use in everyday life, is not just giving us convenience - it potentially give us harm as well.

Plastics are everywhere - but that doesn't mean we cannot choose to not using it. As cheesy as it may sounds, but start small by changing your behavior matters. There are many guides of how to live a life with less plastics, one of them can be checked in Less Plastic website. Check one of the less plastic guides for your daily life below!

Graph from lessplastic.co.uk
On a personal note, even though we are moving towards #BeatPlasticPollution, this does not necessarily mean that we should ban plastic 100% from our life. True, there are some people who make it living without plastics. But there are some others that see plastic as an urgent need, for example, those with disabilities. Thus, knowing how polluting it is and how it may harm us, let's just be more selective: choose other materials whenever it is possible, but when you choose to use plastic, please use it wisely.

Happy World Environmental Day!
Let's #BeatPlasticPollution :)

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