Plastic doesn’t go away nor biodegrade. It just breaks up into irretrievable microscopic, teeny tiny pieces that pollute our water, air and soil. Let’s not become complacent with the small-sounding prefix, as microplastics are a gigaproblem.
Microplastics knowingly upset the balance of our local ecosystems with a growing, yet difficult to quantify, need of understanding the damage these minute pieces of plastic have on our health.
In 2019, local organisation Clean 4 Shore volunteers removed 86% of soft and hard plastics from waterways in the Central Coast and Newcastle regions. This alarming number significantly contributes to the increase in microplastic within our waterways and oceans.
Local Microplastics Clean Up
Collecting marine debris from our local beaches and waterways is one way we see first hand that microplastics are a real problem.
Pinny Beach in the Wallarah National Park is a secluded and wild surfing and fishing beach to the south of the beachside suburb Caves Beach. The voluminous waves of high tide roll on to the coarse dark sand.
Walking with Diana, from See Ya Sista, we cleaned up three bags of waste. The bags included a vast number of tangled up and knotted fishing lines, frayed rope, wetsuit type material, plastic bottles, plastic bottle top lids, cigarette butts, sunglasses arm, swimming cap, swimming goggles, balloons and streamers.
Less obvious were small bits of random plastics. These pieces had broken up from something larger, making the original plastic object impossible to identify. Found along the entire beach, blue was the dominant colour of these microplastic pieces.
In July 2020, on one of my low-tide walks between Forresters Beach and Bateau Bay, the huge haul of plastic and rubbish I picked up came from the shipping containers that went overboard two months prior.
Participating in the Take 3 CEO Clean Up at The Entrance, plastics of different kinds find their way into the local waterways – cigarette butts, a copious number of plastic soft drink and water bottles, bait bags, and glow sticks.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a well-known example of the giga-problem of microplastic pollution. But it’s not just an other-side-of-the-world problem.
Australia’s ocean shorelines, river systems, lakes and waterways are all affected by macro-, micro-, and nano- plastics.
The Problem with Microplastics
Marine debris plastic fragmentation happens when the plastic’s exposed to ultraviolet sunshine and saltwater, combined with the ocean currents. This combo makes it break up and reduce to tiny, visible pieces (up to 5mm), called microplastics.
Microplastics are a problem for our health and our planet. There are two core elements to understanding how they are problematic – we see it and we feel it. Both elements are clarified below:-
1. We see it.
Researched and quantitative data shows that microplastics are real. This hard fact data tells us the size, shape and concentration of microplastics in our natural environment.
Scientists are now calling this period of life on earth “The Plasticene Era” – a time when plastics and microplastics dominated. Since the mass production of plastics in the 1950s, our plastic usage impact has been exponential, extensively saturating our planet.
We already know that plastics affect sea life through entanglement, suffocation and ingestion. Microplastics are in deceased fish and birds. Microplastic contamination knowingly upsets our ecosystem, which ultimately impacts us.
Since the mass production of plastics in the 1950s, our plastic usage impact has been exponential
2. We feel it.
There’s far greater complexity in understanding and researching the long term negative impact microplastics, and nanoplastics has on our health and wellbeing. No person lives in an entirely plastic-free environment, making human health risks more difficult to quantify.
The cocktail of hazardous chemicals used in plastic manufacturing can leach and accumulate in our body. The microplastic can be either eaten, drunk, breathed in or taken in by all living creatures.
Toxic chemicals and additives are known to have harmful effects on our health. Phthalates, BPA and PVC, are the most destructive toxins, causing cancer, DNA mutations, disrupting our hormonal system, also known as endocrine disrupters. These plastic chemicals don’t break down, even though the plastic does, breaking up into microplastics and nanoplastics.
Toxic Chemicals Definitions
- Endocrine disrupting chemicals interfere with, mimics and blocks our naturally occurring hormones which can cause adverse health effects.
- Phthalates are mainly used as plasticisers, added to plastics to increase their flexibility, transparency, durability, and longevity. They are used primarily to soften polyvinyl chloride
- BPA (Bisphenol A) is a synthetic plastic chemical used to make hard clear plastics (known as polycarbonates) and resins.
Positive Actions to Take Right Now
Removing plastics, microplastics and nanoplastics from our environment is impossible. But what can we do, starting today?
- Pick up rubbish and waste in your local area – by yourself or with a local initiative, e.g. Clean4Shore and Take 3 for the Sea.
- Do a personal plastic audit in your home.
- Refuse single-use plastic, e.g. take your shopping bags.
- Reduce your plastic consumption – start with one thing.
- Choose plastic-free alternatives, like natural materials and fibres.
- Choose plastic-free play for kids by embracing nature play and playing with natural materials.
- Visit your local National Park to explore the beauty and awesomeness of our minimal-human-impact spaces.
The devastation and impact that microplastics has on ourselves and our planet can be overwhelming and challenging, but “ignoring the issue simply isn’t acceptable” (pg 102 Plastic Free. The Inspiring Story...)
Microplastics are a silent disruption to our health. Being aware and alert of how and why microplastics are a gigaproblem gives us a greater understanding of why we need to take a preventative approach towards plastics now.
Taking one step at a time to help kickstart your plastic-free living is best. Starting locally, in your home and your community will empower you to make a change.
What resonates with you to take your next small step for the benefit of your own and our planet’s health?
Find Out More…
Related stories about water, waste and plastic from French for Tuesday:
Read my top book recommendations that discuss going plastic-free:
External Online Links
Relevant Australian organisations:
Useful online articles and stories:
- Microplastics have even been blown into a remote corner of the Pyrenees
- Why Ocean Pollution is a Clear Danger to Human Health
- We Estimate up to 14 Million Tonnes of Microplastics lie on the Seafloor. It’s worse than we Thought
- Microplastic Pollution in Deep-Sea Sediments From the Great Australian Bight
- World Health Organisation (WHO) State of the Science of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals 2012 (Summary)
- Toxicity of Microplastics and Nanoplastics in Mammalian Systems
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