Photograph by Jonathan Alcorn, Bloomberg/Getty
It's no surprise, we are living in the age of plastic. From toys to packaging, cosmetics to clothing, we are surrounded by plastic. Global production of plastics currently exceeds 320 million tonnes each year, with over 40% of this being used for single-use packaging (1). Much of this ends up in our environment and eventually makes its way into the marine world. Recently we have seen images and heard stories of turtles, birds and even whales either becoming entangled in or ingesting plastic debris. Many of us have heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a giant swirling mass of floating rubbish in the middle of the Pacific Ocean described as larger than Texas (2). But fewer of us are aware of the effects of those tiny pieces of plastic covertly lurking in our waters, or that of an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic that make up this patch, 94% of these are microplastics (3). So what exactly are microplastics?
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are plastic particles < 5mm. Considered most abundant and most hazardous to marine organisms, microplastics are ubiquitous, reported in our oceans from the poles (4,5) to the Equator (6). The vast majority of these are fibrous particles resulting from either the breakdown of larger items or input in sewerage and wastewater from coastal areas (4). They have been found to be consumed by many marine organisms from mussels (7,8) and crabs (9) to large predatory fish (10) and whales (11). Scarily, nanoplastics (plastic particles <100nm) have been found inside zooplankton (12), the tiny organisms at the base of the foodweb upon which all animals diets are built upon. As larger animals feed on the smaller ones, microplastics are transferred, accumulating with each step in the food chain (13,14). But microplastics aren’t only present in our oceans. They are all around us and are even inside us.
Microplastics and humans
Many studies have shown that humans are exposed to microplastics through multiple sources. They are present in our diet in foods such as seafood (15,16), sugar (17), sea salt (18,19,20), bottled (21) and tap (20) water – even beer! (20,22), they float around in our atmosphere in the forms of fibres released through the wearing of tyres and road surfaces (23), and are in contact with our skin as microfibers from synthetic fabrics (24) and cosmetics (25,26). In a recent study conducted by the Medical University of Vienna and Environment Agency Austria, human stool samples from participants from Europe, Japan and Russia were tested for a variety of plastics. On average, 20 particles of microplastic were found in each 10g of waste. Although a small scale study, the authors estimate that more than 50% of the world’s population might have microplastics in their stool. What’s more, other studies have found that microplastics are capable of translocating across cells and entering into the bloodstream, lymphatic system and accumulating in organs such as the liver (27,28,29). As Chelsea Rochman, an ecologist at the University of Toronto says, “For me, it shows were are eating our waste – mismanagement has come back to us on our dinner plates.” Well said.
What can you do about microplastics?
1 Wright, S.L., Kelly, F.J. 2017. Plastic and human health: a micro issue? Environmental Science and Technology. 51(2).
2 Parker, L. 2018. Planet or Plastic? The Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t what it think it is. National Geographic. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/03/great-pacific-garbage-patch-plastics-environment/
3 Lebreton, L., Slat, B., Ferrari, F., Sainte-Rose, B., Aitken, J., Marthouse, R., Hajbane, S., Cunsolo, S., Schwars, A., Levivier, A., Noble, K., Debeljak, P., Maral, H., Schoeneich-Argent, R., Brambini, R., Reisser, J. 2018. Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic. Nature, Scientific Reports 8(4666).
4 Lusher, A.L., Tirelli, V., O’Connor, I., Officer, R. 2015. Microplastics in Arctic polar waters: the first reported values of particles in surface and subsurface samples. Sci Rep. 5: 14947.
5 Obbard, R.W., Sadri, S, Wong, Y.Q., Khitun, A., Baker, I., Thompson, R.C. 2014. Global warming releases microplastic legacy in Arctic Sea ice. Earth’s Future. 315-320.
6 Ivar do Sul, J.A., Costa, M.F., Barletta, M., Cysneiros, F.J.A. 2013. Pelagic microplastics around an archipelago of the Equatorial Atlantic. Mar Poll Bull. 75, 305-309.
7 Browne, M.A., Dissananyake, A., Galloway, T.S., Lowe, D.M., Thompson, R.C. 2008. Ingested microplastic translocation to the circulatory system of the mussel, Mytilus edulis (L..) Environ. Sci. Technol. 42, 5026-5031.
8 Van Cauwenberghe, L., Claessens, M., Vandegehuchte, M.B., Janssen, C.R. 2015. Microplastics are taken up by mussels (Mytilus edulis) and lugworms (Arenicola marina) living in natural habitats. Enviro. Poll. 199, 10-7.
9 Farrell, P., Nelson, K. 2013. Trophic level transfer of microplastic: Mytilus edulis (L.) to Carcinus maenas (L.). Environ. Poll. 177, 1-3.
10 Romeo, T., Pietro, B., Pedà, C., Consoli, P., Andaloro, F., Fossi, M.C. 2015. First evidence of presence of plastic debris in stomach of large pelagic fish in the Mediterranean Sea. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 95, 358-361.
11 Fossi, M.C., Panti, C., Guerranti, C., Coppola, D., Giannetti, M., Marsili, L., Minutoli, R. 2012. Are baleen whales exposed to the threat of microplastics? A case study of the Mediterranean fin whale Balaenoptera physalus. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 64, 2374-2379.
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13 Mattsson, K., Ekvall, M.T., Hansson, L.A., Linse, S., Malmendal, A., Cedervall, T. 2015. Altered behaviour, physiology, and metabolism in fish exposed to polystyrene nanoparticles. Environ. Sci. Technol. 49, 553-561.
14 Nelms, S.E., Galloway, T.S>, Godley, B.J., Jarvis, D.S>, Lindeque, P.K. 2018. Investigating microplastic trophic transfer in marine top predators. Environ. Poll. 238, 999-1007.
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16 Boerger, C.M., Lattin, G.L., Moore, S.L., Moore, C.J. 2010. Plastic ingestion by planktivorous fishes in the North Pacific Central Gyre. Mar. Poll. Bull. 60, 2275-2278.
17 Liebezeit, G., Liebezeit, E. 2013. Non-pollen particulates in honey and sugar. Food Addit. Contam. Part A Chem. Anal. Control Expo. Risk Assess. 30, 2136-2140.
18 Yang, D., Shi, H., Li, L., Li, J., Jabeen, K., Kolandhasamy, P. 2015. Microplastic pollution in table salts from China. Environ. Sci. Technol. 49, 13622-13627.
19 Karami, A., Golieskardi, A., Choo, C.K., Larat, V., Galloway, T.S., Salamatinia, B. 2017. The presence of microplastics in commercial salts from different countries. Sci. Rep. 7, 1-9.
20 Kosuth, M., Mason, S.A., Wattenberg, E.V. 2018. Anthropogenic contamination of tap water, beer, and sea salt. PLoS ONE 13, 1-18.
21 Schymanski, D., Goldbeck, C., Humpf, H.U., Fürst, P. 2018. Analysis of microplastics in water by micro_Raman spectroscopy: release of plastic particles from different packaging into mineral water. Water Research. 12, 154-162.
22 Liebezeit, G., Liebezeit, E. 2014. Synthetic particles as contaminants in German beers. Food Addit. Contam., Part A. 31, 1574-1578.
23 Kole, P.J., Löhr, A.J., Van Belleghem, F.G.A.J., Ragas, A.M.J. 2017. Wear and tear of tyres: a stealthy source of microplastics in the environment. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health. 14, 1-31.
24 Carney Almroth, B.M., Åström, L., Roslund, S., Petersson, H., Johansson, M., Persson, N.K. 2018. Quantifying shedding of synthetic fibres from textiles; a source of microplastics released into the environment. Environ. Sci. Pollut. Res. 25, 1191-1199.
25 Gouin, T., Avalos, J., Brunning, I., Brzuska, K., de Graaf, J., Kaumanns, J., Toning, T., Meyberg, M., Rettinger, K., Schlatter, H., Thomas, J., van Welie, R., Wolf, T. 2015. Use of microplastic beads in cosmetic products in Europe and their estimated emissions to the North Sea environment. SOFW-Journal. 141, 40-46.
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28 Rieux, A.D., Ragnarsson, E.G.E., Gullberg, E., Préat, V., Schneider, Y.J., Artursson, P. 2005. Transport of nanoparticles across an in vitro model of the human intestinal follicle associated epithelium. Eur. J. Pharm. Sci. 25, 455-465.
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