How do we stop the microplastic invasion and how harmful are they?

    24 Oct 2022

    The recent news that microplastics have been detected in human breast milk is the latest indication that these tiny fragments are everywhere.

    Researchers found that microplastics — usually defined as pieces of plastic less than 5mm in size — were present in three-quarters of breast milk samples taken from 34 women who had given birth in Rome, Italy.

    Similarly, just a few months earlier, in July, researchers in the Netherlands detected microplastics in a range of meat and milk products. Scientists have also found microplastics in beverages and seafood.

    This widespread contamination of food and drink should not come as a surprise, because microplastics are being found almost everywhere. In June it was revealed researchers had even discovered them in fresh Antarctic snow.

    The microplastic food chain

    Many microplastics end up, or are formed, in the sea, allowing them to spread around the globe and absorb toxins. Some of these toxins may have been released into the environment decades ago.

    Marine microplastics may enter the food chain by being eaten by progressively larger organisms until, eventually, they can be consumed by people eating seafood. Fish, scallops, mussels and oysters have been all found, in some instances, to be contaminated.

    “They can be formed by accident or they’re deliberately produced,” says Dan Eatherley, a British environmental consultant and author who has worked on ways to reduce plastic waste with organisations including Google, Greenpeace and the UK government.

    So-called primary microplastics are those that are deliberately produced, such as the microbeads in some cosmetics, while secondary microplastics are formed when waste plastics break down in the environment, often, Mr Eatherley says, due to the action of waves and rocks in the sea.

    “There’s a lot of plastic that gets into the ocean from nets and other plastic gear fishers use, and then there’s plastic packaging that doesn’t get properly recycled and is instead washed into rivers and out to sea,” he says.

    Mr Eatherley suggests that individuals can try to reduce their use of single-use plastics, such as by using refillable drinks containers and avoiding plastic cutlery.

    The UK’s Natural History Museum says plastic cutlery is used for an average of just three minutes, but can remain in the environment for hundreds of years.

    Because plastic is “built into the entire economy of modern society”, Mr Eatherley says, avoiding its use altogether is not easy.

    “We instead need to shift to a more circular economy, where all of the plastic we use gets captured and recycled,” he says.

    “At the moment, though, this is difficult because so many different types of plastic are used, making it hard to separate them.”

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