Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust
There is something about plastic pollution that seems almost insidious. No matter where we go, land or sea, that plastic bottle is with us, often discarded carelessly.
By now, everyone is probably aware of the dangers of plastics to ocean wildlife. Swallowed inadvertently, pieces can lodge in the stomachs of whales giving them a fake feeling of being full that reduces their food intake until they die of malnutrition. And they are far from the only ones as scientists have recently uncovered a new threat.
During stormy weather, sea spray releases microplastic particles into the air. Norwegian and German scientists have learned that they may originate from land but they are carried over to the ocean atmosphere to be then dispersed by wind currents.
Their experimental procedure employed two devices mounted at a 12 meter height at the prow of their research vessel to pump in the air to be analyzed. The findings published recently in Nature Communications (Vol. 14, Article #3707) note their most northern destination as Bear Island in the Svalbard archipelago.
Plastics from textile fibers were omnipresent. Tire wear particles abraded during braking and even driving were also common. These find their way into the sea through rivers and rain. Ships are another source as epoxy resins used in paints and coatings plus polyurethane gradually erode polluting the sea. In fact, the study authors claim ships are the main problem.
Most tap water all over the world contains microplastics which we inevitably ingest. Researchers at the University of British Columbia have given us hope against this pervasive problem. They recently discovered that adding tannins (found in fruits) to wood dust can produce an effective filter of microplastics. Testing demonstrated a remarkable ability of the filter to capture up to 99.9% of microplastic particles in water. It also proved effective against a broad spectrum of plastic types, and successfully reduced microplastic accumulation in mouse organs. Findings were published in the journal Advanced Materials (June 6, 2023). Researchers also believe this technology can be scaled up affordably.
That microplastics have been found in a majority of humans tested should come as no surprise. A recent study has found microplastics in five heart regions and in the blood. They have previously been found to be embedded deep in lung tissue.
Common sources are of course the ever present plastic water bottle, plastic food containers most often prevalent in fast food outlets including the usual one for hot coffee. All of which contributes to the US being the world’s largest producer of plastic waste in total and per capita (Engineering and Technology, Dec. 4, 2022, p. 6). It generated 4.2 million metric tonnes (a tonne equals 1000 kgs) in 2016 according to figures available, which amounted to 130.1 kg per person. To contrast, the figures for China were 21.6 million tonnes or 15.7 kg per person.
The usage is deeply entrenched in daily life and will be difficult to change but change we must. Legislation comes to mind but that too is unlikely to be easy. The manufacturers’ trade associations will not stand idly by with that much at stake. Remember, instead of popping out plastic bottles, they will have to remove all those moulding machines and produce glass bottles, plus the franchisees who fill the bottles will have to install cleaning and sterilization equipment.
Perhaps the pressure has to come from the bottom. Consumers, if properly informed, will learn to avoid plastic containers in their own interest. It is only then, that single use bottles and plastic take-out containers and their ilk will become history.