Microplastics– this word has been gaining a lot of attention from the ecologists in recent time. With rising population, material consumption has exponentially grown in the last hundred years leading to the huge production of plastic. A consequence of anthropogenic plastic pollution, microplastics are small particles of plastic having a length of five millimetres or smaller. As plastics take years to decompose, owing to natural weathering phenomenon, gradually, they can disintegrate into smaller and finer particles. Breakdown of plastic bottles, clothes made of synthetic fibres like nylon when washed, tyers and brakes used in cars, plastic shopping bags among other things, release these microplastics in our environment, both on land and seas. Moreover, such small particles are also deliberately manufactured and it can be found in the form of microbeads in various cosmetic and facial products, or they are also used in air blasting technology. In the year 2014, it was found that microplastics abound our oceans and it was estimated that their number could be anywhere between 15 trillion and 51 trillion, weighing about 93,000 and 236,000 metric tons!
A recent study suggests that microplastics are not only limited to marine life but now they have been found to have made their way well in human food chain too. A World Health Organisation study has reported that these particles have been detected in tap water, honey, sea salt, sugar and even beer! In another study by The University of New Castle in Australia, it was estimated that an average person could be consuming approximately 5 g of plastics per week which is equivalent to eating a credit card! Effects of microplastics have been investigated on animals. It has been shown to impact their behaviour, larval development, growth and other physiological function, in a deleterious way, which could cause a decline in aquaculture output. Soil, too, has been found to be contaminated with microplastics. A recent study reported that soil containing microparticles of plastics stunted the growth of earthworms. Earthworms help increase the fertility of the soil by loosening it which leads to better air and water circulation for the growth of plants. Earthworms which fed on these microplastics lost a considerable amount of weight. Thus, our food production capacity may also reduce due to microplastics pollution.
As these particles have been found in seafood like shellfish and other molluscs, which form a major dietary part of human beings in some countries, it has become imperative to study their effect on human beings too. As of now, now much is known about the direct impact of microplastics on human beings. However, as these particles are plastic, some chemicals which are found in plastics like vinyl chloride in PVC which is known to cause cancer or BPA and phthalates which are endocrine disruptors may come in contact with humans, for instance, when we microwave our food in plastic containers or when we drink water in plastic bottles.
While more and more nations are curbing the use of plastics, its total elimination is not possible. All we can do is to reduce its usage; refraining from using plastic water bottles or heating food in the microwave using plastic containers could be some ways to reduce our exposure to microplastics. Some countries have even banned the use of microbeads. Other ways to prevent microplastics from entering into the environment could be buying non-synthetic eco-friendly clothes or filtering and collecting the microfiber shedding off our clothes in the washer. Incorporating these small changes in our daily lives may reduce the usage of plastics and its harmful impact on our ecosystem.