The huge problem of microplastics
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The huge problem of microplastics

Microplastics are a growing concern, and they are everywhere: in oceans and on mountain peaks, in food chains and ecosystems, in the most remote locations – even in our lungs and blood. Meanwhile, EU’s proposal to restrict at least intentionally added microplastics in an effort to reduce pollution has been delayed an entire year.

Microplastics can now be found everywhere: at the peak of Mount Everest, in the depths of the Mariana Trench, as well as in the blood, lungs, and placenta of humans. Studies show that an average person consumes about five grams of microplastics a week – roughly the weight of a credit card.

Yes, you read that right: You are consuming the equivalent of a credit card in microplastics each week.

 

We know very little about these tiny pieces

Apart from the highly troubling fact that microplastics don’t biodegrade, making them a physiological nuisance in the environment and all living things, we don’t know much about the chemical contents of plastics, or their effects on our health.

Current legislation requiring plastics producers to disclose information about substances added to enhance or alter the properties of the plastic, so called additives, is limited – to say the least.

What we do know is that most of these added substances are hazardous to human health and the environment.

“A staggering 40 percent – 160 million tons – is single-use or has a service life of less than one month”

Around 400 million tons of plastics are produced each year, an already impressive amount projected to grow. Out of all produced plastics, a staggering 40 percent – 160 million tons – is single-use or has a service life of less than one month.

Only about 10 percent of all plastics waste is recycled. The remaining 90 percent is incinerated, or ends up in landfills and plastic islands, where larger pieces of plastic eventually break down into microplastics, making their way further into the environment and various food chains.

 

What’s taking so long?

Microplastics are also intentionally added to some products, such as glitter, cosmetics, laundry detergents, fertilizers, and paints, inevitably making their way into the environment eventually.

In an effort to curb this pollution, the European Commission requested ECHA to prepare a restriction proposal on intentionally added microplastics (used in cosmetics, laundry detergents, fertilizers, certain paints, and so on) back in 2017. The proposal was due in May 2021, but there is still no restriction proposal in sight.

“Surely, the industry’s desire to keep adding these menacing particles to their products doesn’t outweigh the health and safety of Europeans”

Some NGOs are calling this delay illegal and detrimental to human health and the environment. We can only agree: What’s the hold-up, EU?

Surely, the industry’s desire to keep adding these menacing particles to their products doesn’t outweigh the health and safety of Europeans, or the wellbeing of our oceans, rivers and ecosystems?

Of course, intentionally added microplastics are not the only pollution source, accounting for about 42,000 tons of microplastics being released into the environment each year.

Unintentionally formed plastic particles, so called secondary microplastics – generated from larger pieces of discarded plastics, plastic pellets, synthetic textiles, tires, artificial turfs, and so on – account for a jaw-dropping 176,000 tons of microplastics being released into the environment each year. No wonder we’re all consuming one “credit card” a week…

 

Decrease production – increase information and recycling

So, what can be done about this growing problem of tiny plastic particles? Apart from finally implementing that restriction on intentionally added microplastics, there are three major actions that need to be taken:

  • Reduce plastics production: Give that “plastic tap” a good ol’ turn
  • Demand comprehensive information about chemical content from plastics producers and other actors along the supply chain
  • Increase plastic recycling rates in a safe and sustainable way

Contrary to what the plastics industry will tell you, this is not only possible – it’s crucial. And what better place to start turning the tap than with the 160 million tons of plastics produced yearly, with a service life of less than 30 days?