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Microplastics: A Growing Environmental Concern
What are Microplastics?
The world is addicted to plastic! Plastic is in virtually every product such as clothing and rope (polyethylene), bottles and single-use bags (polyethylene), credit cards and toys (polyvinyl chloride) and cups and take-out containers (polystyrene) (Hardin,2021). When plastic is exposed to weathering such as sun, wind, or rain, it does not degrade like organic material. Plastic instead breaks down into smaller and smaller particles known as microplastics. Microplastics are classified as fibers, fragments, films, and microbeads and are 5mm or smaller (about the size of a grain of rice). Microplastics are easily transported by wind and water through the environment and are extremely difficult to clean up. Litter and wastewater treatment facilities are major sources of microplastic detritus in the environment (Savitz, 2022).
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Where are Microplastics?
Microplastics pose a major financial and ecological problem. They are easily transported by wind and water through the environment and are extremely difficult to clean up. In total, nine of Pennsylvania’s largest cities spend over $68.5 million every year cleaning up litter and illegal dumping; most of this is plastic. Americans generate over 35 million tons of plastic waste every year. 94% is not recycled and ends up as waste. This waste is either burned, which increases air pollution, or ends up in landfills and the environment (Savitz, 2022).
In 2021 and 2022 the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center collected water samples from Pennsylvania’s most pristine freshwaters to test for microplastic accumulations. The research team focused on waterways with PA DEP classifications of Exceptional Value, High Quality, and Class A Cold Water Trout Fishing. All of the samples contained microplastics with fibers being the primary shape found (Savitz, 2022). From 2015 to 2019, USGS sampled for microplastics at nine locations along the Upper Delaware River. They found plastic particles in 100% of the water samples (7.5 particles per m3), 94% of fish samples (10.1 particles per organism) and 45% of mussel samples (5 particles per organism) (Baldwin et. al., 2021). Cohen et. al. conducted another study in the Delaware River Bay and found every sample to have some concentration of microplastics. The study also analyzed the transportation of microplastic. Due to their buoyancy, microplastics can easily move through the water profile via wind, tidal-flows and currents and can accumulate in areas known as hot-spots (Cohen et. al., 2019).
Is There a Health Concern?
It is estimated that humans may ingest five grams of microplastics each week (about the weight of a credit card). When analyzed, drinking water (both tap and bottled), shellfish, and even beer and salt showed high concentrations of microplastics (Dalberg Advisors, 2019). In some non-human studies microplastics have been shown to cause harm via physical presence (inflammation) and chemical toxicity (adsorption of harmful chemicals or pathogens). Little is still understood about the direct human health impacts of excess plastic ingestion (Blackburn & Green, 2022), however, new research is frequently published.
There are many ways new infrastructure can reduce the flow of plastics into waterways. However, plastic will always pose a potential risk if society does not reduce reliance on plastic products and materials. Cities such as New York and Philadelphia have placed bans on single-use plastic bags and these small steps can help reduce new plastic from entering the environment. Plastic can also be reduced by avoiding fast fashion brands (Savitz, 2022) and using reusable plateware and utensils for gatherings or when taking out food. It should also be noted that replacing single use with reusable plastic is a temporary solution and only prolongs the issues surrounding plastic pollution.
The best way to reduce plastic consumption is to increase recycling and minimize new uses by finding alternative options to plastic.
Blackburn, K., & Green, D. (2022). The potential effects of microplastics on human health: What is known and what is unknown. Ambio, 51(3), 518-530. The potential effects of microplastics on human health: What is known and what is unknown | SpringerLink
Baldwin, A. K., Spanjer, A. R., Hayhurst, B., & Hamilton, D. (2021). Microplastics in the Delaware River, northeastern United States. Fact Sheet - U. S. Geological Survey. https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/fs20203071
Dalberg Advisors, W. d. W., Nathan Bigaud (2019). No Plastic In Nature: Asscessing Plastic Ingestion From Nature to People [Analysis report ]. W. W. F. F. N. (WWF). https://www.humanitarianlibrary.org/sites/default/files/2021/06/plastic_ingestion_press_singles.pdf
Hardin, T. (2021).The Basics On 7 Common Types of Plastic Plastic Oceans Retrieved 04/26/2023 from https://plasticoceans.org/7-types-of-plastic/
Savitz, F. (2022). Pennsylvania's Pristine Waterways Microplastics ASurvey of Exceptional Value, High Quality, and Class A Trout Rivers and Streams P. E. R. Policy. https://environmentamerica.org/pennsylvania/center/resources/pennsylvanias-pristine-waterways-and-microplastics/
Disclaimer: All information, content and materials on this blog are for general information purposes only. Any opinion expressed by the author is not necessarily the opinion of Penn Club H2O or University of Pennsylvania.