Ever since the 1960s-when the use of polyethylene became most apparent- our world has been reliant on this pliable and ubiquitous material. Even the most unexpected products such as shoes and clothing are made from this seemingly immortal substance. Of course, when it was initially invented, plastic did not have such a bad reputation. In fact, it quite literally defined the modern world and industry as we know it. Over time, however, through the accumulation of plastic, and the subsequent degradation of the environment, it became clear that this petroleum-based material was not as good as previously assumed.
What Are Microplastics?
According to National Geographic, “Microplastics, as the name implies, are tiny plastic particles. Officially, they are defined as plastics less than five millimeters (0.2 inches) in diameter—smaller in diameter than the standard pearl used in jewelry” (Liitschwager). Living in a “throw away” society was a term created regarding the short-term life of plastic; however, this merely refers to the individual’s ownership. In actuality, plastic takes centuries to truly decompose, and even then still remains as microscopic particulates. Today, we see the long-term effects of this short-term material infiltrating every major waterway, obscure ecosystems, the atmosphere, and even us. More so than ever, ocean-life is succumbing to the pressure microplastics have on their habitats. Chunks of it have been found in countless birds, fish, and a multitude of other marine-life variants. Not only is this threatening the integrity of marine and aquatic habitats, but it also directly harms individuals that consume these organisms. Through water runoff, littering, and wind patterns, plastic easily pervades every biome across the planet influencing this constant decadence to it and its inhabited organisms- including us.
As mentioned, scientists have documented the presence of microplastics in virtually every ecosystem. An astonishing field study even checked untouched glacial regions off this extensive list. The National Library of Medicine reported, “In previous studies, abundant microplastics have been reported from Tibetan rivers/lakes water and sediments, and surface soils. We detected microplastics in glacier surface snow on the TP, which were isolated from the impact of human activities, indicating that microplastics can be transported over long distances.” This even ties into the presence of particulates in the atmosphere regarding the very air we breathe.
Why You Should Care
Confrontation and action are two necessary steps to reduce plastic outputs. There is no reversing this turmoil, but it is imperative that we do something to decrease this exponential growth pattern. In a capitalist society where consumerism is the fueling factor, a desire for cheap, materialistic items is inevitable; we are taught to always want more. However, when our health and the health of our planet comes into play, it is all the more important to take action. A research team at Florida State University performed a study on how human bodies react to microplastic inhalation: “Researchers found that exposure to microplastics for only a few days caused human lung cells to slow down their metabolism and growth, change shapes, and decluster so that gaps exist in what is typically a solid sheet of cells.” If the concentration of microplastics in food sources and the air continues to augment, the human population will see these devastating effects more and more frequently.
Humphries, Courtney. “Freshwater’s Macro Microplastic Problem.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 11 May 2017, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/freshwater-microplastics/.
“Microplastics and Human Health: FSU Researchers Find Exposure to Microplastics May Alter Cellular Function.” Florida State University News, 19 Apr. 2021, news.fsu.edu/news/science-technology/2021/04/19/microplastics-and-human-health-fsu-researchers-find-exposure-to-microplastics-may-alter-cellular-function/.
National Geographic Society. “Microplastics.” National Geographic Society, 28 June 2019, http://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/microplastics/.
US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “What Are Microplastics?” NOAA’s National Ocean Service, 13 Apr. 2016, oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/microplastics.html.
Zhang Y;Gao T;Kang S;Allen S;Luo X;Allen D; “Microplastics in Glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau: Evidence for the Long-Range Transport of Microplastics.” The Science of the Total Environment, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33243498/.