Updated: Sep 15, 2022
We all know what plastics are, they are used everywhere starting from small toys to huge appliances. Ever wondered what is the end life of all the plastic and plastic items that we use on a regular basis? Let me take you through it. Most of the used plastic ends up in landfills while a small proportion of it gets recycled. Moreover, these plastics disintegrate and melt down bit by bit in the external environment in the presence of sunlight, forming smaller and tinier particles of plastics. These tiny particles which are less than 5mm in size and hardly visible to the naked eye are termed as Microplastics.
Microplastics are nothing but tiny specks of plastics that are either created intentionally or formed by fragmentation of larger plastic items. Sources of microplastics are broadly categorised into 2 types namely’
Primary sources - These include the ones that are created purposefully. Eg: Microbeads.
Secondary sources - These include the ones that are formed due to breakdown of larger items. Example: wear and tear of tyres on the road.
They are a consequence of plastic pollution and are dangerous to all forms of living creatures and ecosystems. So, this demands a need and importance to educate ourselves about their effects and the threats they impose.
Smaller Plastics, Bigger Problems!
Here are 6 ways in which Microplastics are detrimental to the Natural Ecosystems:
1. Marine life deterioration.
It is not shocking to know that around 14 million tons of plastic ends up in oceans every year. And plastic constitutes 80% of the marine debris that gets deposited in the oceans. Industry experts suggest that, by 2050, the plastic consumption will increase to three times of what it is today.
The following are the main factors responsible for plastic to end up in the oceans and water bodies, thereby forming microplastics.
Tyre wear and tear
Rain, waste water and floods transporting littered plastic waste
Wastes that get blown away while transporting to landfills
Intentional disposal of plastics & microplastics in water bodies
The worrisome factors of this ocean microplastic pollution include:
Microplastics that occupy the entire ocean has led to damage of coral reefs, ice caps, beaches and the entire underwater ecosystem.
Oceans sustain life, but today more than 300 species have been ingested with microplastics. Once ingested, they impact marine species by altering their growth, health and overall behaviour.
The wildlife consumes and absorbs the toxins that microplastics generate and eventually die. Nonetheless, the ones that are alive after consuming the microplastics act as vectors to transport them into the food web.
Microplastics adversely affect marine species and threaten their existence towards extinction
2. Soil pollution
Different kinds and forms of microplastics have variable effects on soil. Car tyres wear and tear, run-offs during rain and improper waste disposal contribute to transmitting microplastics to soil. The impacts include;
Microplastics generated from LDPE and HDPE plastics are prone to change the pH of the soil. pH is an important factor that regulates the nutrient availability in the soil. Microplastics acidify the soil which results in decrease of availability of nutrients, increase of the availability of toxic elements and also influences the chemical reactions in the soil. This affects the overall growth and development of crops.
Microplastic pollution can reduce the number of soil-dwelling insects. That means that the carbon and nitrogen cycles are affected too. High concentrations of microplastics significantly reduce the fertility of the soil by around 50 % which is disastrous.
Soil fauna like microarthropods, nematodes, fungi and other useful microbes, get affected due to the presence of microplastics in soil. Microplastics decrease the abundance of soil fauna and also makes it sticky. Earthworms are affected with stunted growth and weight reduction, resulting in chances of erosion.
Terrestrial agriculture gets disturbed meaning that there is a threat to food security as well as soil ecosystems.
Microplastics found in soil (https://www.wur.nl/en/show/Development-and-application-of-tests-for-microplastic-detection-in-soil-1.htm)
3. Human impacts:
Microplastics have been known to have entered the human bloodstream. Synthetic clothes, sea salt (infused with ocean microplastics), water, plants and organisms that have ingested microplastics are the main sources through which microplastics enter into our body.
Scientists claim that around 32,000 pieces of microplastics are consumed per year by an average adult. These particles and fibers, depending on their size, shape and density, move down the body and disrupt various functions of organs.
They usually build up in the liver, kidney and gut causing metabolism disturbances, induce oxidative stress, disturb and kill human cells.
Researchers have also confirmed that they affect fertility in humans and cause growth challenges & developmental delays in children.
Microplastics might latch to outer membranes and affect the ability of cells to transport oxygen to the overall body.
Microplastics have also been found in human placenta Experts claim that this can affect the feotus’s developing immune system.
4. Wildlife damage
Apart from marine wildlife, terrestrial wildlife is also drastically affected by microplastics. Improper disposal of plastics, vehicle tires and clothes are the main sources of microplastics on the land.
Birds and terrestrial wildlife animals assume plastic waste as food and consume. This deteriorates the wildlife and eventually causes death.
Microplastics, when ingested, block the gastrointestinal tracts of birds, animals and cause physical damage internally. This can also cause suffocation and starvation ultimately leading to death.
The indigestible microplastics settle down obstructing the organs and leading to gas formation.
Species extinction is a probable outcome if this pollution continues.
A Hawaiian hawksbill turtle hatchling with microplastic contents in its stomach (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01143-3)
5. Heavy metals and organic chemicals:
Microplastics carry a wide range of pollutants like heavy metals and harmful organic chemicals. Once these are ingested into the body, they leach from plastic and absorb into the body.
This not only increases the toxicity but also has potential health hazards. These toxic metals and chemicals have the potential to cause different cancers and also promote mutation in DNA. There is also the danger of toxins leaching into ecosystems like soil, water-bodies and natural resources damaging and affecting their potability.
By bringing minimal and simple changes in lifestyle, one can reduce the negative effects of microplastics to a major extent. Analysing day to day activities and thinking about the changes to that can be implemented to minimise plastic consumption. This would be a great way to deal with microplastics. In this way we would not just save ourselves from the hazards, but also contribute in building a greener and safer planet.
Here are 5 easy, affordable and practical ways to reduce microplastics:
Choose the clothing carefully- buy clothes made of natural materials.
Ditch the single-use-plastics and use reusable materials.
Buy plastic free cosmetics and microbead-free beauty products. Personal care products often include microplastics that are purposely created.
Follow the 3Rs( Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) principle if avoiding plastic entirely is not possible.
Do not microwave the food in plastic containers. Use other safe and plastic-free containers.
By incorporating these practices in our daily life, we can contribute to reduce the growing global crisis of microplastic and nanoplastic pollution.