Microplastic – It’s in the Ocean, but Is It in Your Body?

Scientists are now finding microplastics in humans and many of our food sources. Well, do you have plastic in your Poo? Before we go there, let's look at the bigger picture.

Plastic Production and Plastic Pollution

Most plastic is made from fossil fuel-based chemicals, then mixed with an assortment of other chemicals to get the type of plastic required. Not stuff you really want to eat.

Globally, more than 350 million tons of plastics are produced each year, and this is expected to triple by 2050. That’s a huge amount of plastic. Plastic is not biodegradable and will hang around for up to 1,000 years. You have to start to wonder just how much the planet can handle.

Around 8 million tons of this plastic ends up in our Oceans every year adding to the estimated five trillion pieces already there. The majority of Ocean Plastic is single-use items such as straws, coffee cup lids, water bottles, food packaging, and plastic bags. 

Ocean Plastics break down into smaller particles called Microplastics, which is ending up in the food chain. Microplastic is particles of less than 5 mm. They sink to the ocean floor or float in a soup suspended in water, and are eaten by a variety of marine animals including fish. These fish then get eaten by larger predators, including humans. Have you been eating plastic?

Ocean Plastic and Wildlife

Chances are you have seen these photos of dead sea birds with their stomachs filled with scraps of plastic foraged from beaches and oceans around the world. This is shocking, but only a fraction of the problem

Research has found that Microplastic is now commonly ingested by a large range of marine animals. A recent study, spanning three oceans and including all seven turtle species, found plastic particles in the stomach of every single turtle examined. That’s 100% of turtles eating plastic. Right now, six out of seven sea turtle species are endangered and plastic pollution is a key threat.

Humans and Microplastic

Microplastics have now been discovered in the human body, and there is growing concern about the potential health risks posed to humans.

Scientists recently tested a lot of human poo and found that every single person tested positive for tiny pieces of plastic. An average of 20 particles per 10 grams of stool was found (just for interest, the average poo is 14 to 17 grams). 

This is the first study of its kind and confirms, as I suspected, we are all eating plastic. The risk to human health is unknown and further research is required to understand what eating plastic means for our health. But I wonder – if I am eating chemicals every day, is this why I am feeling tired in the morning, or why more kids have allergies? Not science, just a thought.  

Where is Micro-Plastic Coming From?

Microplastic comes from various sources, including exfoliators in cosmetic products, biomedical applications, automotive tire wear, fibers from the breakdown of clothing. 

In the ocean, microplastics occur from the disintegration of larger plastic items (macroplastics) via wave action, UV radiation exposure, and physical abrasion when washed over shorelines. The cumulative effects of these physical, biological, and chemical processes reduce the structural integrity of the plastic and result in fragmentation of the items into smaller, and eventually microscopic particles. (called Nano plastic)

So what can YOU Do?

Well, we all use plastic every single day, so we are all responsible and need to make changes to our thinking if we want to be part of the solution. Together we can become the solution to ocean plastic pollution, but we need to take positive action. Here are simple things you can do;

At Every Opportunity, Avoid Plastic.  

Do you really need a plastic straw? Probably not. Can you take your own bags to the supermarket, definitely? Can you choose between glass and plastic packaging, of course? You get the idea. Start saying, “No thank you, let’s save a turtle” when someone offers you plastic. 

Reusable Bags.

Around 1 million plastic bags are consumed every minute. Most are thrown away within the hour. Take your own reusable bags when shopping. You just need to get a little bit organized and pre-plan. For grocery shopping, a couple of large sturdy bags and some little reusable bags for fruit and vegetables. Carry bags in your car and carry one of those little fold-up bags for the unplanned emergency shopping trip.   

Look For Plastic Free Packaging

Look closely at what you are buying and look for an alternative no plastic brand. Spend your money at stores that offer other alternatives to plastic wrapping and spread the word among your family and friends, when you find one that does. Look for items in cardboard boxes instead of plastic bags or plastic bottles. This includes laundry detergents and soap. The good news is there is an increasing number of manufacturers and retailers who are switching from plastic to other alternatives due to customer demand. Think about the change that has occurred over the last few years with egg production. Free Range egg suppliers outnumber caged eggs in supermarkets simply due to consumer demand. 

Buy in Bulk

Much of the world’s plastic waste comes from the kitchen and food packaging. Instead of buying and storing food in disposable plastic containers, use good quality reusable plastic and glass containers. Support businesses that encourage you to bring your own containers with you. Choose the unwrapped products where you can. 

Stop Buying Bottled Water.

Since you can buy your own water filtration system, there is no need to buy bottled water. Companies don’t manufacture water, they manufacture plastic bottles and simply fill them with water. This is one of the easiest targets for reducing plastic waste. For water on the go, keep a refillable bottle around. If you have to purchase a beverage, look for recyclable aluminum cans, instead of plastic bottles. Aluminum is much more valuable to recyclers than plastic, so it is much less likely to be diverted to a landfill.

Boycott Microbeads

Those little plastic scrubbers found in so many beauty products—facial scrubs, toothpaste, body washes—might look harmless, but their tiny size allows them to slip through water-treatment plants. Unfortunately, they also look just like food to some marine animals. Opt for products with natural exfoliants, like oatmeal or salt, instead. Read the label. 

Use Your Own Cup for Takeaway Coffee. 

Many coffee shops are actively encouraging people to bring their own reusable coffee cups and often give a discount for those that do. Support these shops and/or ask your favorite shop to join the responsible cafe movement.  

Support Businesses and Groups That Are Actively Reducing Plastic Pollution.

Join a local clean-up crew, or organize your friends to do a local clean-up. Cleaning up any rubbish left near creeks helps stop the waste before it reaches the Ocean. Buy from companies who demonstrate a commitment to reducing plastic pollution. When you become aware of an initiative that is actively working towards plastic reduction, recycling, or upcycling, spread the word. 

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Adrian is a co-founder of loop2cycle. Following a successful career building and managing numerous businesses in the past, he is now dedicated to the reduction of plastic waste and improving the environment in remote communities.

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