Although the effect of microplastics on the human body is not yet well understood, scientists express serious concern over how much of them people end up swallowing or breathing in.
Marine biologist Jonne Kotta of the Estonian Marine Institute of the University of Tartu noted that since 1940, plastic has become an inseparable part of human society. As a result of this, most people use plastic products every day.
“The yearly global production of plastic has risen rapidly, increasing from around two million tonnes in 1950 to 348 million tonnes in 2017,” Kotta told ERR. “The recent global COVID-19 pandemic alone increased the amount of plastic waste by eight million tonnes. Approximately one-tenth of all plastic waste ultimately ends up in the oceans.”
He said that once plastic enters the marine environment, the plastic particles quickly break down into smaller pieces due to sunlight, mechanical friction, ocean waves, temperature fluctuations and biodegradation. “Plastic particles one to two micrometres large have already spread everywhere,” the scientist said.
UN environmental programme estimates say that the economic cost of plastic waste on the marine environment alone is close to 330 billion dollars.
The unseen threat
Microplastics are invisible to the naked eye, but according to Kotta, microscopic plastic particles can be found in the air, water, soil and in living organisms. The full extent of microplastics’ effects on organisms has not yet been determined, but scientists are concerned that these foreign particles can inflict significant damage to the human body’s cells.
“Microplastics can, whether due to direct contact or through swallowing, negatively affect the metabolism, nutrition and growth rate, reproductive capacity and behaviour of living organisms,” he said. “We just don’t understand the exact extent of their effects on our health yet.”
Also of great concern to scientists is how much microplastic accumulates in the human body over time. “Depending on how much we come into contact with this kind of waste, we either swallow or breathe up to 100,000 particles of microplastic every day. Figuratively speaking, this is the same as if we ate one credit card a year,” Kotta said.
How can we reduce microplastic waste?
According to Kotta, the development of a circular economy and improvements to waste management are crucial for reducing environmental pollution caused by plastic. “In this regard, international organisations such as the European Union have already banned the most widespread single-use plastics, and have introduced various regulations to reduce the amount of microplastics in the environment,” stated Kotta.
In Kotta’s estimation, an innovation-centric approach that would bring disparate parties together is necessary in order for sustainable plastic alternatives to be available in the packaging industry. In addition, producers and consumers should be directed to adopt these kinds of solutions.
“During the previous decade, the study of microplastic waste and its biological effects has increased exponentially,” Kotta said. “We also know that many such studies are a bit weak methodically, as a result of which we lack reliable information on how great the microplastic problem in our oceans actually is.”
Kotta’s team, however, recently published a scientific article that gives directions on how studies on the effect of microplastics should be carried out so that they are comparable and provide information that society needs from scientists.