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Plastics Here, Plastics There, Microplastics Everywhere

Did you know that the plastic material that make up car tires and plastic cutting boards wears off? These tiny plastic particles, or microplastics, shed and enter the environment. For example, from your tire, rainwater washes tire microparticles from the street, into the storm drains, and out to the ocean. Those microplastics then end up in the seafood we consume. You may also ingest the cutting board microplastics with the food you cut up, or you may wash them down the drain and they’ll eventually enter the sewer system. After treatment, microparticle-rich sewage sludge is applied as fertilizer to agricultural land, where it comes into contact with crops and disrupts terrestrial eco-systems maintaining the fertility of the soil.

Studies of the effects of microplastics on living organisms, including humans, have emerged in recent years, but the growth of this knowledge is in its infancy. More data is needed to define the full scope of the problem and guide the development of protective measures. Unlike other waste, plastic will never fully degrade. It will only break down into smaller and smaller particles that will continue to permeate our environment indefinitely. The more plastic we use in our everyday lives, the more we add to the pollution, change our landscape, and affect the life existing within it.

In 2022, scientists first confirmed that plastic particles were detectable in the blood of donors from the general public. This means that the microplastics we internalize through ingestion, or otherwise, are not all cleared from the body, but remain in the blood available for uptake by cells and tissues of the organs. According to the same study, one of the more populous particles found floating in the blood samples was styrene. The National Toxicology Program listed styrene as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” in its 2011 annual Report on Carcinogens. In 2016, styrene was added to the well-known Prop 65 list of chemicals known to the state to cause cancer.

Microplastics have spread throughout our environment and into our bodies, and we know that they have the potential to cause harm. What we have yet to do is connect all the dots and discover just how deeply the degradation of the 8,300 megatons of plastic produced since WWII will affect us and our planet. The 10% of plastic that is recycled globally will also eventually end up discarded, since plastic cannot be infinitely recycled.

You might be wondering why the recycling rate for plastic is so low. While you may put great effort into collecting all your plastic containers in the blue bin, the reality is that the collection of those items does not guarantee their recycling. Waste management agencies, like RethinkWaste, SORT the items from the bins, but downstream of that there needs to be companies interested in buying the materials for remanufacturing purposes. Depending on the state of the economy, this interest will fluctuate. In the RethinkWaste service area today, plastic #1-7 is collected, but we are only able to sell #1-2 containers. The rest of the plastic materials will go to landfill, until the markets shift.

As individuals, we can do our part to mitigate the current limitations by refusing, reducing, and reusing plastic products as well as supporting legislation that aims to regulate the full plastics lifecycle with its production from fossil fuels, its use by consumers and business, and finally, its disposal. As a consumer, we also have the power of choice:

  • Take a train, bus or carpool to minimize tire tread microparticles on the streets;
  • Use natural products like wooden cutting boards and cooking spoons to minimize the amount of microparticles washed down the drain;
  • Wear clothes made of cotton, wool, or silk, rather than synthetics, like polyester, nylon, and acrylic to further minimize the microparticles entering our water supply;
  • Purchase products in glass or metal over plastic containers, since, unlike plastic, glass and metal are infinitely recyclable.

Help stop the spread of microplastics everywhere! Advocate for yourself and your environment by NOT choosing plastic.