Microplastics: The Invisible Threat?

The dangers of plastic pollution to the environment are now known for decades. While it may not have been the intent behind the invention, indiscriminate use of plastic has added to environmental costs. We may have begun tackling the issue by shaping policies and lifestyles to bring down plastic use, a new threat crept up on the environment right on its heels – Microplastics.

What are Microplastics?

The term ‘microplastics’ is said to have been first used in 2004, by Richard Thompson, a marine biologist at the University of Plymouth in a paper he published. To define them technically, microplastics are any and all types of plastic fragments that are less than 5 mm in length. These are further categorized as primary and secondary microplastics. Primary microplastics are the fragments that fit the definition of microplastics before they enter the environment. One may commonly encounter them in facewashes and cosmetic products. They are usually present as physical exfoliators.

A single use of a facial exfoliator can release 5,000-100,000 microplastics to the environment. Image Credit: Dung Pham, Chen Wu, NJIT

On the other hand, secondary microplastics are the results of larger plastic debris or components breaking down into small fragments, till they’re small enough to be deemed microplastics. Other ways we may encounter secondary microplastics is through the routine disintegration of everyday products we use that are made of plastic, either entirely or partially.

How are Microplastics Hurting the Environment?

As compared to plastic, the invasion of microplastics in the environment is a more recent problem in observation. However, microplastics pollution has been occurring for long before that. Add to these facts that we are still not completely aware as to how microplastics can, and are hurting the environment and all living organisms, including humans.

What we do know is that there is certain cost involved when microplastic continues to find its way into the environment, unchecked and at a quickening pace. Microplastics are said to be a more threatening pollutant owing to its size. Being unnoticeable to the naked eye, it is difficult to clean-up or avoid contamination. They easily make their way into the food chain of living beings, especially aquatic animals.

Areas of concern where microplastics are found are freshwater sources, oceans, and terrestrial soil. A 2014 study, which reviewed works in the area of microplastics found that the marine food web is being impacted by microplastics, and there is a need for integrated approaches. Another recent article notes, “There is nonetheless evidence to suggest that the presence of microplastics alone may cause harm, or that the combination of microplastics with other environmental stressors may pose unpredictable hazards.”

A new area of exploration for microplastics impact is their presence in the wastewater system. Researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology introduced prominent microplastics variants in three wastewater samples. They found that in this environment, microplastics serve as a surface for the formation of biofilms which further serve as hubs for the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and pathogens.

While many studies point towards microplastics being a significant environmental stressor, there is a note of caution in most. While some suggest that some microplastics and plants may not necessarily be a bad combination, others talk about the need for more studies to delve deeper and better understand the impact and thus shape the policies to combat problems.

The truth of the moment is that microplastics are now everywhere. With rapid rise in their use and direct disposal in the environment, they will soon find their way where they aren’t already. Moreover, they are difficult to detect and be completely removed from the system they may be contaminating.

Considering this, it is important to be aware of how we are adding to situation by being conscious of how we are choosing to use and if that is really important. Given its presence and a dearth of data, more studies are expected in the near future to highlight the near and far impact of microplastics.

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Terra Love View All →

I am a simple writer who wishes to use her skill to create more awareness about the planet that offers us life.

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