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Microplastics have been found in snow close to the peak of Mount Everest. Humanity has now polluted every corner of the world, from the highest mountain to the deepest point on Earth

The study, published in the journal One Earth, found microplastics within a few hundred metres of the top of Mount Everest, at a spot known as the balcony. From snow samples collected from 11 locations on the mountain-ranging from 5 300 metres to 8 440 metres high, microplastics were found in all of them. The highest concentration of microplastics were found around Base Camp. The fibres likely came from clothing, tents and ropes used by mountaineers. 

What is Happening?

Imogen Napper from the University of Plymouth, who led the new research, says, “It really surprised me to find microplastics in every single snow sample I analysed. Mount Everest is somewhere I have always considered remote and pristine. To know we are polluting near the top of the tallest mountain is a real eye-opener.”

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While reducing, reusing and recycling large items of plastic waste is important to reduce the amount of waste breaking down into microplastics, microplastics can also be shed from clothing made from synthetic fabrics. We need to focus on creating clothing with better fabrics, as well as using natural fibres such as cotton when possible. 

If you are drinking coffee while reading this story, you’re likely ingesting a few micrograms of plastic. The same is true if you’re drinking tea. Or if you’re eating cereal, chicken soup, or anything made with water. Regardless where that water came from, chances are it brought some microscopic plastic particles with it that you are now eating. You may not see them floating around your coffee cup, but when these microscopic particles are heaped up, the piles look shockingly plentiful.

A recent Reuters infographic titled “A plateful of plastic” serves as a stark reminder of how much plastic we are actually eating. According to that story, we ingest about five grams of plastic every week—a spoonful that weighs about as much as a bottle cap. Every month we swallow an equivalent of five casino dice—or about half a rice bowl. At the end of the year it totals half a pound—or a heaping dinner plate. And after 10 years, we each consume over five pounds of plastic—the equivalent of a standard life buoy. How much over the course of our lifetime? About 44 pounds total.

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To date, humans have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic—or 25,000 times the weight of the Empire State Building. About 8 million tons of it washes into the oceans every year, where it doesn’t biodegrade—because its large polymer molecules were designed to last forever, and they do. Instead, bigger plastic objects break down into smaller, microscopic fragments, littering marine ecosystems from deep ocean sediments to polar icecaps. And as they float down the rivers and into the ocean these miniature fragments come back to us with the water we consume.

Although this plastic isn’t immediately poisonous, it has been shown to have detrimental affects on living organisms. Plastic molecules are endocrine disruptors—they mimic certain hormones present in humans and animals, interfering with reproductive systems. One study showed that when marine oysters lived in waters polluted with microscopic plastic for two months during their critical reproductive cycle, they produced fewer eggs and had slow swimming sperm. The larvae of these plastic-affected oysters also grew slower than normal. When exposed to environmentally relevant levels of plastic in its food, fish named Japanese medaka experienced liver stress and signs of endocrine disruption. Even for smaller marine organisms, reduced reproductive or growing success is a recurring theme after chronic exposure to microplastics. Planktonic copepods exposed to plastic-laden water, wold be eating less—and reproducing less. Lugworms raised in plastic-containing sediment, ate less and had only half of the normal energy reserves stored in their bodies. Even microbes aren’t spared. Marine bacteria Prochlorococcus, which produces ten percent of the oxygen we breathe, grows slower than normal because plastic pollution changes its gene expression. Humans also experience the deleterious effects of microplastics—numerous studies have linked bisphenol A (BPA)-containing plastic to health issues. But even BPA-free plastics can mimic human hormones, and may be just as harmful.

With tons of plastic debris floating in the ocean, our water supply is already tainted. Is there anything we can do to clean up our tap water? Several companies claim that their tested filter technologies can sieve out microplastic from the water we drink. For example, LifeStraw filter comes in a variety of forms, including a pitcher and TAPP attaches to water faucets. Ironically, both systems use at least some plastic components—it seems unavoidable.

In the short-term such filters can diminish the amount of plastic in our diets. But the only way to truly reduce plastic pollution worldwide is to eliminate single-use plastic, develop better recycling solutions, and make biodegradable alternatives.

This article was originally published on JSTOR Daily, written by Lina Zeldovich, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.

In recent years, microplastics have been appearing in news headlines with the same creeping ubiquity with which they permeate our everyday lives and the natural world. Microplastics are defined as fragments of plastic smaller than 5mm and larger than 1 micron (1/1000th of a millimetre) in length, and their impact as one of the most common and pervasive pollutants on Earth is only just beginning to be subject to rigorous investigation. 

Common examples of microplastics include materials such as glitter, microbeads and fragments from larger pieces of plastic debris, as well as from items of clothing. Over a matter of decades, these substances have become widespread in bodies of water, the digestive systems of wildlife, in the food we eat and in the air we breathe. The ingestion of microplastics by marine wildlife means that the substances have ‘the potential to bioaccumulate and threaten ecosystem health’, and can introduce harmful organic substances into the food chain. 

An investigation conducted by researchers from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the Universities of Oxford and Leeds and Common Seas, discovered that the estimated 11 million tonnes of plastic dumped into the world’s oceans in 2016 could increase nearly threefold to 29 million tonnes every year by 2040. A crucial factor in the projected increase, the researchers state, is the prospected doubling of the volume of plastic on the market by 2040 if governments and businesses do not take preventative action. Meanwhile, researchers from the University of Manchester found that urban ‘hotspots’ in the north-west of England contained the highest concentrations of microplastics in their study, including a section of the River Tame in Denton which contained over 500 000 plastic particles per square metre.

The risks posed to organisms found in rivers are further illustrated in a study by Royal Holloway, University of London, which focused on the River Thames. According to the study, some 94 000 fragments of microplastics flow down certain sections of the river every second, a level which exceeds that of rivers such as the Danube and the Rhine in Europe. The bodies of crabs inhabiting the Thames were found to contain microplastic fragments, and 75% of the river’s European flounder population showed evidence of microplastic ingestion. Researchers also reported evidence of microplastics in 80% of London’s tap water. 

The fact that these substances do not decompose means that the uncontrollable accumulation of microplastics on the planet is already a reality. Plastic production is expected to increase from today’s 300 million metric tonnes to 33 billion metric tonnes per year by 2050. Despite the gloomy outlook, however, there are several steps humankind can take to tackle the problem. The most significant of these is the need to dramatically reduce the use of single-use plastic items and increase recycling. In Europe, however, only 30% of plastic is recycled, and only 9% in the USA is recycled. The figure for Southeast Asia is also 9%. China has stopped importing plastic waste intended for landfill in the USA; therefore the USA needs to develop recycling capacities, in order to deal with the increased volume of plastic waste that would previously have been imported to China. A 2020 Greenpeace report found that just 14% of the nation’s recycling facilities can process containers commonly used in takeout food, fruit and baked goods. Just 11% can recycle plastic cups; 4% plastic bags and 1% can process plastic plates, cutlery and straws. 

A long-term solution would be to develop new methods to break plastic down and more eco-friendly materials, such as biodegradable plastics. While some plastics are labelled as biodegradable, they can only be broken down by extremely high temperatures. One problem, however, is that the substances needed to create fully biodegradable plastics – polymers that can degrade into carbon, oxygen and other elements in water or soil – would not be useful as food packaging, for example. While this kind of biodegradable plastic could potentially be used for quick-use products such as plastic cutlery or food wrappers, it could not be used to replace all substances which cause microplastic particles to break off. 

There has been evidence to show that certain aquatic organisms can break down microplastics that enter their systems. However, certain polymers, such as the polyethylene used in plastic shopping bags or polystyrene, are more difficult to break down. It seems that the first steps to tackle this problem lie in better quality waste-management facilities and more investigation into how polymers can be broken down. If the problem is not brought under control soon, humankind could be facing a future saturated in microplastics. 

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Featured image by: Oregon State University

Plastic Free Seas, a Hong Kong-based environmental charity, is calling for an investigation into the source of the black granule microplastics which have been washing up onto the beach in Discovery Bay since late July. A cleanup operation resulted in the recovery of over two tons of the black crumb-like material, as well as other debris. 

The NGO has expressed their frustrations with the lack of a coordinated emergency response and investigation by the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) and other departments in Hong Kong. It says that after a 2012 incident in which 150 tons of plastic pellets fell into the ocean from a container ship, as well as a palm oil spill in 2017, this need is ever more important. 

While Clean Shorelines, an Interdepartmental Working Group, was set up after the pellet spill, the group focuses on cleanup rather than investigation, penalties and incident prevention.

From an internal investigation, Plastic Free Seas found that the microplastics material appears to be rubber infill used in AstroTurf, similar to that used on the North Plaza pitch in Discovery Bay. Infill from the pitch has been seen in and around storm drains which surround the pitch. 

Dana Winograd, director of operations at Plastic Free Seas, says, “Even with the obvious and significant amounts of infill which can be seen in drains less than 200m away from the water’s edge, there is still corporate denial of any responsibility for the problem and there has been no attempt to even remove the infill from the drains to prevent further pollution.” 

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plastic free seas microplastics

The rubber crumbs collected by the Plastic Free Seas team (Source: provided by Plastic Free Seas).

This infill is typically made from ground up tyres, from which chemicals and heavy metals make their way into seawater. 

Winograd says, “In the world of plastic marine pollution, there is often too much focus on cleanup and managing plastic pollution and not enough real action taken on prevention. A government investigation is slow and ongoing, and only as a result of a significant push from Plastic Free Seas. We need the government to find out the source of this problem, ensure that the ongoing pollution problem at this pitch is solved, and also to assess all the synthetic pitches in Hong Kong and mandate best practices for management to ensure the rubber crumb infill does not continue to pollute our seas and waterways.

More broadly, PFS has also urged the government for more transparency and communication with supporting NGOs. 

This article comes from the frontline activities of Plastic Free Seas, whose mission is to reduce plastic pollution in Hong Kong and beyond through education and action.

About Plastic Free Seas

Plastic Free Seas is a Hong Kong-based environmental charity focused on changing the way we all view and use plastics in society today, through education and action campaigns. Learn more at www.plasticfreeseas.org

A new research technique now allows for microplastic and nanoplastic particles to be discoverable in human organs. This will allow scientists to determine the level of plastic contamination as well as the health impact of these particles on human health, which is currently unknown. 

The researchers expect to find these nano- and microplastic particles in human organs and have already found chemical traces of plastic in human tissue. However, characterising these traces is difficult. To test this new technique, researchers added micro- and nanoplastic particles to 47 samples of lung, liver, spleen and kidney tissue. Microplastics were detected in every sample. These organs were studied as they are the ones most likely to be exposed to microplastic. 

The analytical method allowed the research team to identify dozens  of types of plastic, including polyethylene terephthalate (PET) used in plastic bottles and the polyethylene used in plastic bags. They also found bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used to make plastics, in all 47 samples. BPA is a ‘reproductive, developmental and systemic toxicant in animal studies’, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. 

Varum Kelkar of Arizona State University and part of the research team, says, “We never want to be alarmist, but it is concerning that these non-biodegradable materials that are present everywhere may enter and accumulate in human tissues, and we don’t know the possible health effects. Once we get a better idea of what’s in the tissues, we can conduct epidemiological studies to assess human health outcomes- that way, we can start to understand the potential health risks, if any.”

This new technique developed by the team will be shared online so that other researchers can report their results in a standardised way and allow them to compare exposures in organs and groups of people over time and geographic space.

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Microplastics have been found all over the planet, from Antarctic ice and the food we eat to the deepest parts of the ocean. Previous studies have also shown that people eat and breathe in at least 50 000 particles of microplastic a year. 

Charles Rolsky, another member of the team, says, “In a few short decades, we’ve gone from seeing plastic as a wonderful benefit to considering it a threat.”

Microplastics are those less than 5mm in diameter and nanoplastics have a diameter of less than 0.001mm. Both are formed largely from the abrasion of larger pieces of plastic dumped into the environment. Research in wildlife and lab animals has linked these plastics to infertility, inflammation and cancer. 

Featured image by: Oregon State University

The impacts of human activity on our oceans have been so tremendous, it is difficult to capture the breadth of it all. From the pacific garbage patch and stormwater runoff to the acidification of the oceans due to temperature rise; we have left an astoundingly negative mark on the oceans. One of the most insidious of these is microplastics; plastic debris measuring from one micron to five millimetres in size. This debris makes up around 85% of plastic pollution in the oceans, and is small enough to pose a significant problem for marine ecosystems. As microplastics accumulate and move up the food chain, it inevitably ends up in the seafood that we consume, no matter where it’s sourced from, affecting our health.

The global fight to ban microplastics has taken tremendous leaps forward over the last decade. The scientific community, aided by environmental organisations, has succeeded in persuading governments to stop allowing microbeads in cosmetics and other products. Primary microplastics, or microplastics that were manufactured to be five millimetres or smaller have been the primary focus of the legislation which has been passed so far. While this is a great first step, it fails to address the larger problem posed by secondary microplastic pollution. 

Secondary microplastics are formed when small fragments flake off of larger pieces of plastic debris. The obvious culprits are manufactured objects, single-use plastics, and used or damaged building materials. Many jurisdictions around the world are looking into eliminating plastic waste entirely by implementing bans on the use of single-use packaging and other single-use plastics, as Germany has decided to do from 2021. While this is admirable as well, legislation often overlooks one of the more insidious sources of microplastics: textiles. Synthetic textiles like polyester fragments come off when being washed and these micro fragments are flushed directly into the water system. 

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The issue with microplastics is well documented. Microplastics are so small they flow through most waste-water filtration systems and end up in freshwater and marine ecosystems. Because they are so small, plankton, krill and other small marine fauna mistake these pollutants for food. The toxins which are released from the microplasticsin these small creatures can impact everything from their behaviour to their health. One such study, published in Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety in 2017 puts this into perspective. The researchers looked specifically at the effect of polystyrene microbeads on planktonic crustaceans and found that the neurochemistry of these animals was directly affected by the polystyrene fragments, which leads to altered behavioural patterns just 48 hours after exposure. 

Other studies have demonstrated the wide-ranging impacts of these toxins in marine wildlife. Studies into the impacts of the many different plastic pollutants are in progress, and with a better understanding of the problem comes better leverage to push for better regulation. Samaneh Karbalaei and Parichehr Hanachi of Alzahra University’s Department of Biotechnology, along with Tony Walker from Dalhousie University and Matthew Cole of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, published an overview of the link between microplastics and human health concerns in 2018. In it they explore the process through which microplastics move through terrestrial and marine ecosystems, ending up on our plates as they bioaccumulate up the food chain and potentially impacting on our health. These findings, along with the growing body of similar studies has prompted some governments to take further action on plastic pollution. 

Canada, for example, has banned primary microplastics in commercial products, and was on track to ban single-use plastics by 2021. Unfortunately, the implementation of this was delayed due to the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is hoped that the government will push it through once the pandemic abates. 

Other jurisdictions are also pursuing legislation. Each ban has a different focus and scope, and so it’s hard to say what the impacts of these first steps will be. What is clear is that the work of the scientific community and the activism of environmentalists around the world have grabbed the attention of governments. The United Nations Environment Programme published a report on the limitations of single-use plastics in 2018. In it, they found that of the 127 countries that have begun a discussion on the topic, only eight have followed through with implementing legislation. While others have passed similar laws since the publication of this report, the process is painstaking and slow.

Compounding the matter, some of the jurisdictions where plastic bans are already in place have had a change in government and environmental protections have taken a back seat. For example, in the US, a ban on microbeads had been decided under Barack Obama’s administration, however the current Trump administration has since repealed a staggering number of environmental protections. In the time of the climate crisis, one step forward and two steps back is disastrous for the environment. 

While there are plenty of solutions being explored by the scientific community, none are yet ready to be implemented on the scale necessary to eliminate plastic pollutants in our oceans. What is needed is a sustained global movement to hold governments accountable for addressing the climate crisis. The international community has been highly effective in pushing for change only because global environmental organisations and the scientific community have kept the pressure on governments. This is vital work, as governments have a duty to protect their people’s health amid the microplastics crisis.

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Featured image by: NICO Expedition

Casper Ohm is the Founder of Water-pollution.org.uk.

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