It’s in our water, our meat and fish, even our fruits and vegetables, and worst of all (no surprise) in our bloodstream, says the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. But it doesn’t belong in any of those places.
The average American consumes 50,000 plastic particles a year and they don’t just come and go, they stay, circulating through our bodies alongside essentials like nutrients and oxygen. And unlike nutrients, we absorb plastic a lot faster than we excrete it. But there are self-defense strategies you can and should start using. First the bad news:
- In 2020 we generated more than 500 million tons of plastic, That’s 900% more than in 1999.
- Each year about eight million tons of plastic ends up in our seas and oceans. By 2050, our oceans could contain more plastics than fish.
- The average useful life of a plastic object is 12 to 15 minutes but it can take up to 500 years to disappear, according to Life Out Of Plastic (LOOP). Plastics outlive us and will outlive our children. In the past 70 years, virgin plastic production has increased 200-fold and has grown at a rate of 4% each year since 2000, according to a 2017 study in Science Advances. Only a small portion of plastics are recycled, and about a third of all plastic waste ends up somewhere in the environment.
But plastics are not just waterborne. They are airborne as well. Airborne microplastics mostly come from three sources: clothing, car tires and the fragmentation of commodities and packaging used briefly and then thrown away, sometimes decades ago.
Below ground, emerging research suggests, 136,000 tons of microplastics in the ocean are being released into the atmosphere each year and being transported back onto land via sea breezes, posing a risk to we humans who inhale them. Drinking water, both tap, and bottled water is the largest source of plastics in our diet, with food not far behind. According to the Environmental Research journal, microplastics have also been found in shellfish, beer, and salt, and even in common fruits and vegetables. Apples, for example, had one of the highest microplastic counts, with an average of 195,500 plastic particles per gram, while broccoli and carrots averaged more than 100,000 particles per gram.
Through normal water and food consumption, it’s estimated that the average person consumes about 5 grams of plastic each week, equivalent to the size of a credit card, according to the World Wildlife Foundation.
In short, microplastics are, everywhere and we ingest them with virtually every meal we eat, every drink we down, and every breath we take. Microplastics form when larger pieces of plastic break down into small particles, or when tiny, microscopic fibers detach from items like polyester clothing or synthetic fishing gear. Others are deliberately manufactured, in the form of tiny plastic beads which are used in a wide range of cosmetics and personal care products like exfoliating cleansers and body scrubs, shampoos and makeup items like foundation and mascara.
The damage is not fully understood. But one thing we know: inhalation of fibrous microplastics can lead to serious respiratory tract inflammation. According to a WWF report, fish and other marine animals with high concentrations of microplastics in their respiratory and digestive tracts have much higher mortality rates. We know that inhaled plastics can produce inflammation and lesions in lungs, and repeated exposure is suspected of leading to respiratory problems like asthma and cancer. Inhaling microplastics may also increase exposure to other toxic substances and coatings associated with plastics and their manufacturer.
So what’s the good news? We can drastically reduce our exposure to and harm from microplastics by using some of the following strategies.
* Avoid using cosmetics that use microplastics. In a study by Greenpeace Italy 79% of the 600 plus products (from major brands such as Sephora and Maybelline) tested contain microplastics like PVP, Mascara was the biggest offender, followed by foundation. Opt for organic sustainable cosmetics.
* Reject cheap plastic hair brushes and combs. Invest in biodegradable natural wood fiber hair care items.
* Synthetic clothing, such as polyester, is a huge source of microplastics. When possible, choose eco-friendlier, sustainable clothing made from organic materials, such as cotton, silk, wool, hemp and other natural fibers.
* Your washer and dryer may be releasing microplastic. You can help reduce it by:
- Using quality filters that catch microplastics
- Air-drying your clothing
- Using less water with every load
- Avoiding the delicate wash setting, which uses more water than the normal cycle
- Washing your clothing less often and buying fewer new clothes which shed more microfibers than clothes that have been previously washed and worn
*Reduce your shellfish meals. Microplastics are ingested especially by bottom-feeding shellfish, like shrimp, mussels, and lobster. Reduce or avoid them altogether.
*Plastic and microwaves don’t mix. Plastic containers leach plastics when they’re heated.
*39% of dust particles in the home contain microplastics. Keep your home as fresh and clean as possible. Dust and vacuum frequently.
*Drive less. Tires are a major source of microplastics, making up 28% of the microplastics found in the ocean. Tires break down when moving, sending the tiny particles off into the environment.
*Decrease plastic-based phthalates in your home, use a HEPA-filtered vacuum cleaner and avoid vinyl products like shower curtains.
*Use personal care products labeled fragrance- or phthalate-free. Products labeled as “unscented” may still contain fragrance and aren’t necessarily free of phthalates
*Kick your zipper food-storage bag habit. Use reusable silicone or paper-based bags instead and avoid fruits and vegetables packed in plastic wrap or clamshells.
*Get a home water filter (like Lifestraw) for the kitchen that filters microplastics out of your drinking and cooking water.
*Ordering takeout?? Request that plastic-based condiment packets, cutlery, and straws be left out.
*If you do buy something in a plastic container, get only packaging marked ##1 or 2 on the bottom. These can actually be recycled.
*Avoid plastic tea bags. Pyramid-shaped tea bags release microplastics into your brew and can wind up in landfills. Choose loose-leaf or paper bags instead.
*Use plastic wrap sparingly or not at all. Stretchy silicone covers, beeswax wraps, or aluminum foil are better substitutes. Or simply dish the food in a bowl and cover with a plate.
*Less frozen food: just about everything in the frozen food aisles is wrapped in plastic, even if the exterior is cardboard.
*Stop using sanitizing and flushable wipes. These are often made of plastic fibers that clog sewers and don’t degrade in the landfill. Buy soap, shampoo, detergents, and cleaning products that come in paper, glass, or aluminum.
*Ditch plastic razors. Switch to a metal razor with replaceable blades.
*Take your own empty non-plastic containers to restaurants for leftovers to take home
*Dispose of disposable: do without those paper coffee cups at take-out. Disposable paper cups are made of around 90 to 95% paper, while an additional 5% is made up of a thin plastic coating of polyethylene, a petroleum-based product that is what makes the cup waterproof and able to hold liquids. Next, get out that coffeemaker. Come on, coffee-making is a learned skill, not like playing the guitar. And a $3 a day habit is costing you $20 plus a week or almost a thousand bucks a year. Do it yourself and you can buy better beans and grind it yourself and use filtered water and waste no paper cups, lids or spoons at all. A big win-win for your budget and the environment.
*Skip bottled water. Install a water filter or just choose the tap and save a bundle. According to a CBS News report, more than half of all bottled water is just tap water anyway but can cost MUCH more than tap water.
*Chew gum? Most brands are made of (ugh), synthetic rubber, aka plastic. If you must chew, look for brands like PUR, Simply Gum, and Glee.
ENVISONING A POST PLASTIC WORLD
Be conscious of what you buy and what you accept. Whatever is in your hands, envision where it’s going after you’re done with it. If its fate is the landfill, then figure out how to cut that out in the future.
If you’re unsure of where your plastic-bearing materials will end up, visit your local waste sorting facilities or call your local sanitation or waste management office to learn more.
Got plastic cutlery, cups sitting in drawers? Don’t trash. Donate to community centers, homeless shelters, and schools where they will have a longer life away from the landfill and obviate the need to buy more.
Support people who produced the award-winning documentary “A Plastic Ocean,” and went on to create the Plastic Ocean Foundation. Its mission is changing the world’s attitude toward plastic within a single generation.
Get the Beat the Microbead app, where you can scan the ingredients of your makeup or other cosmetic products to find out if and what microplastics they contain. Scan before you buy.