Plastics are pervasive and essential to how we live. They provide packaging for food, products, and waste, are used in a vast number of product embodiments such as household items, medical tools and supplies, and vehicles, and are used in a variety of piping, building material, and industrial processes. Even chewing gum is often made from synthetic rubber which is a type of plastic. Plastics are easy to produce, low cost, and very versatile.

This is all good, but plastics are a growing problem for the environment and potentially human health. Most plastic is synthetic (not natural) and so nature has a hard time with it. For the most part plastics do not biodegrade but instead slowly photodegrade and otherwise breakdown into small pieces. Chemicals also leach from plastics and often adhere to plastics.

Initial forms of plastic were invented in the 1800s, but the first synthetic mass produced plastic was invented in 1907. Plastic has been accumulating in the environment since it was invented, with significant accumulation starting in the 1950s. Plastics are in the oceans, lakes, rivers, soil, potentially groundwater, bottled water, tap water, outdoor air, indoor air, and indoor dust. It’s everywhere and being ingested and inhaled by wildlife and humans.

There seems to be a lack of information and understanding about plastics, and especially microplastics. In addition, the impact of plastics disposal may be larger than previously thought.

Macroplastics = Pieces of plastic that you can easily see.

Microplastics = Small pieces of plastic generally less than 5 millimeters in length (size of sesame seed). Some pieces are big enough to see, but many you cannot see.

Nanoplastics = Very small pieces of plastic, generally lumped under microplastics.

Microfibers = A type of microplastic, consisting of small plastic and chemical-covered non-plastics. Synthetic clothing is a primary source and lots of fibers are released during washing.

Microbeads = A type of microplastic, manufactured and often polyethylene plastic that is very small and for example is added to health and beauty products such as toothpaste and shampoo. Microbeads are being banned in various countries.

Source of Microplastics = Breakdown of large plastic by various mechanisms, microfibers, microbeads, and more such as from manufacturing processes.

Chemicals Leached from Plastics = Synthetic polymers can contain endocrine disrupters such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, as well as carcinogenic compounds.

Human Health Concerns = Small plastic particles and leached chemicals can get into the lungs and other organs through the bloodstream. But dose level is always a major consideration. Small doses of most anything won’t hurt you and large doses of most anything will hurt you, e.g. limited consumption of fish containing mercury is considered safe and drinking too much water will kill you. Currently, human health problems related to plastics are largely unknown.

Degradation = Large plastic degrades into small microplastic pieces. These microplastic pieces eventually degrade into pieces so small you can’t see them. Most commonly complete biodegradation or mineralization of plastic never occurs, but it’s a matter of debate. Possibly mineralization does happen after hundreds or thousands of years, but all plastic ever produced is currently still in the environment as plastic unless it was incinerated and even then there are byproducts (emissions and ash).

Plastic statistics (estimates):

-300 million tons of plastic is produced each year

-Only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled

-8 million tons of plastic ends up in the oceans every year

-8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced from inception of plastic, and most of it has become trash (only a small amount has been recycled or incinerated)

-There are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the oceans

-Worldwide 500 billion single use plastic bags are used each year

-100,000 marine mammals and 1 million sea birds die from plastics each year

Select articles:

How do we stop plastic pollution in our water? (very good listen)

It's not just the oceans: Microplastic pollution is all around us

Microplastic pollution in oceans is far worse than feared, say scientists

WHO launches health review after microplastics found in 90% of bottled water

Should You Worry About Microplastics in Bottled Water?

First-ever ocean plastic cleaner will tackle Great Pacific Garbage Patch