Most of us have opted in and out of different diets throughout our life. I have been an omnivore, a vegan for a while who would not eat even honey, a vegetarian for a few years, and now, I am a flexitarian. I have also gone on different diets for losing weight or gaining muscles, eating more proteins and less carbs. I know people who have been on a keto diet and have changed their lifestyle completely in order to accommodate that. As humans, we have the option to eat or not eat food based on our own personal tastes, cultural backgrounds, religious limitations or the availability of certain foods in the area we reside in. However, as an increasing number of recent studies are showing us, the one ingredient we can’t seem to opt out of our diet, no matter where we are, is “microplastics”.
Let’s start with the definition of microplastics: microplastics, or according to ocean scientists, marine debris, are smaller plastic particles up to 5mm in size. For a compact yet hilarious take on microplastics, watch Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’s episode on plastics here.
The main problem with plastic, other than its ubiquity1, is that it does not break down as easily and degrade as fast as we want it to. It may take up to 500 years depending on the plastic type. According to the website of American Chemistry, the first man made plastic was made only in 1862 but it did not take off until after World War I. We now use plastics in almost everything. There are 7 major types of plastic, including PET, HPDE, PP, PVC, etc. and they all share the same characteristics: resistance to chemicals, electrical insulation, lightweight, strength and colour variety. Last, but not least, is their longevity, which was the main reason that they were created in the first place, but now has put them on the top of the list of environmental hazards alongside loss of biodiversity, food waste and deforestation. (Read the Biggest Environmental Problems of 2021)
How microplastics end up in our food chain and our stomachs is another story shown in the diagram below.
Photo by Challenges and Treatment of Microplastics in Water – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate.
According to this article: “Microplastic particles (MPPs) have become a global concern since they have been added to products that are used almost daily. MPPs can be found in a number of cosmetic and personal care products, including washing liquids, soaps, facial and body scrubs, tooth-paste, and lotions. One of the primary issues is that the microplastics found in cosmetic and personal products are rinsed into the household drains without any precautionary recycling measures.”
According to findings from the study analysis by the World Wildlife Fund and carried out by the University of Newcastle in Australia, people are consuming about 5 grams of plastic every week, which is the equivalent of a standard credit card. Put another way, whether we like it or not, we consume a plastic hanger worth per month, making jestingly our collective stomachs a walk-in closet, which would have been hilarious, had the dangers and repercussions not been imminent and true.
These findings were featured on most major news channels, including ABC, in July 2019. However, serious research on microplastics did not just start with the findings in Australia but has been going on for more than a decade, and scientists have been researching the impact it will have on the quality of air, water and the food that we eat2.
The excerpt below is part of a report published by WHO in 2019 on the subject of microplastics.
With time, we will know more about any side effects of ingesting plastics but until then, we should be aware of the footprint we are leaving on earth during our lifetime. So much so that scientists are saying that future generations will recognize us through our fossils as the The Plasticene Epoch, the age of plastic.
The good news is that we now possess technologies to detect and to defuse the threat of microplastics. According to a news article on CTVNEWS.CA, we now have a new way to find microplastics in our oceans: “Using satellites that were designed to track hurricanes, researchers searched for the microplastics by looking for patterns in the water itself.” Once we can recognize the patterns or hotbeds, we can start combating them. One way of accomplishing that goal, according to Science Daily published on June 10 2021, is: “ Bacteria sized robots that take on microplastics and win by breaking them down.”
On a personal level, before we involve mini robots to clear our oceans for us and save our stomachs from issuing credit cards with no money in them, we can turn to more natural and plant based self care products and reuse and recycle as much as we can. As Canadians, we are open to thrifting, regifting, and repurposing old objects. We can also ask our local stores or chain coffee shops to take on new challenges and accept our suggestions when we tell them we are comfortable with bringing our own coffee mugs and straws to grab our daily beverages.
We came up with plastics to replace animal horns more than a hundred years ago. I am sure we are more than capable of coming up with creative ways to combat the hassles caused by our favourite kind of amenity.
1 according to IUCN “Over 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year, half of which is used to design single-use items such as shopping bags, cups and straws. At least 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year. Floating plastic debris are currently the most abundant items of marine litter. Waste plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris from surface waters to deep-sea sediments. Plastic has been detected on shorelines of all the continents, with more plastic materials found near popular tourist destinations and densely populated areas.”