Microplastics: a macro problem happening under our noses

Microplastics: a macro problem happening under our noses - Wilton Centre

Plastic is everywhere. Imagine taking a selfie with every plastic item you touch during a single day; you would be surprised at the volume of photos you would take! We all rely heavily on plastic as an incredibly versatile material for all manner of goods – globally manufacturing an estimated 8.3 billion tonnes since the 1950s – and a future without it seems unlikely. So, it’s always worth asking the question: where does all this plastic ultimately end up?

The obvious answers are in a landfill or as debris and litter in rivers, oceans and natural habitats, and these reports do not make for easy reading, but there is also a less apparent and potentially more important issue to consider. Over time, the effects of sunlight, oxygen, microbes and weathering lead to the breakdown of these larger plastic items into billions of microplastics – tiny fragments just millimetres in length, around the size of a sesame seed.

A detrimental impact

Microplastics are now ubiquitous, detectable in the most unlikely of places – from mountains and Arctic ice to coral reefs and deep oceans – and are having a detrimental impact on the ecosystems they have infiltrated. For example, consuming these particles has been found to sometimes block the digestive tracts of some smaller organisms, reduce appetites and alter feeding behaviours, as well as introducing microplastics into the food chain. Many of these polymers also contain chemical additives and contaminants that are hazardous to marine species, even in low doses, once they are ingested. Researchers are now aware that microplastics are found in the fish and shellfish that we eat, and a paper published in Nature1 even identified significant levels in the salt that you shake over your chips! While the negative impact of microplastics in marine environments is becoming increasingly documented, there are still many unknowns regarding their effects on human health.

The biggest concerns, however, surround the growing awareness that further microplastic degradation leads to even smaller particles called nanoplastics (between one and 1,000 nanometres). Their smaller size and increased surface area give rise to chemical properties that may be very different from their micro- and larger counterparts; they are far more likely to be able to enter respiratory systems and pass through cell membranes, posing a much greater risk to animal and human health.

Is there a solution?

The probability of humanity moving quickly away from using plastic is slight, and a global solution is likely to require the cooperation of both governments and corporations to help us transition from a linear to a more circular economy. Consumers do, of course, have a part to play, and the rise of ‘refusers’ – those who emphasise refusing and reducing plastic use as priorities over recycling – offers a viable pathway forward for individuals who are looking to align their lifestyles with their values. It wasn’t too long ago that drinking with a single-use, plastic straw was part of everyday life, yet today things feel very different and the UK government has announced that a ban on the supply of plastic drinking straws, stirrers and cotton buds will come into force in April 2020. This rapid rate of change in consumer and government attitudes indicates that a move towards a more environmentally-friendly approach to plastic use is achievable.

As sustainability advocates are quick to remind us: “We don’t need a few people doing zero-waste perfectly; we need millions of people doing zero-waste imperfectly.” With a number of occupiers at Wilton Centre – and across the Knowledge Factory portfolio – addressing plastic issues, it’s exciting to see how their contributions will influence future plastic use. MCC-Lucite is working to develop polymers from sustainable raw materials, with the intention of reducing the dependence on oil, and is leading the way in improving the volume, and types, of plastics that are recycled. SABIC UK Petrochemicals Limited is a founding member of both the UK Plastics Pact – which aims to transform the UK’s plastic packaging system by keeping plastics in the economy and out of the environment – and the Global End Plastic Waste Alliance, as well as being a funding partner of the Ocean Cleanup Foundation. Then there is Poseidon Plastics Ltd., a waste polyester recycling company and co-developer of a unique monomer recycling technology that converts polyester waste to recycled raw material (BHET) to produce virgin PET.

When all is said and done, decreasing our plastic use in the first instance is the easiest way to reduce the volume of microplastics that we introduce into the environment, and future generations will thank us for taking action sooner rather than later.

1 https://www.nature.com/articles/srep46173