(Micro)plastics pollution

Microplastics are ubiquitous in the environment. Most of the microplastics originate in macroplastics fragmentation. Plastic pollution and the microplastics problem are tightly linked.

Plastics started as a cheap but durable materials replacing natural sources. In 1909, bakelite, the first synthetic polymer entering mass manufacturing, was developed by Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland. Several decades later, plastic products became daily-used and their low price allowed them to become single-use. In 2019, 368 million tons of plastics have been produced. It is approximately the same weight as of all people on this planet. Only 1 million ton was labelled biodegradable.3

Global Plastic Production

in Mt per Year

Fig. 1: Plastics production in Mt (million tons) in years. There’s a clear growth in plastics consumption. Data from https://www.plasticseurope.org/

By 2015, 8 300 Mt (=8 300 000 000 tons) of plastics have been produced globally. Only 9 % of it was recycled, 12 % incinerated, and the rest (if discarded) was landfilled or littered to an open environment.4

Fig. 2: Estimated amounts (in Mt) of plastics produced, used and wasted by 2015. Data from ref.4, the figure from ref.5

By 2019, almost 10 billion tons of plastics have been produced. That’s the same weight as 1 million Eiffel towers, 100 million blue whales, the amount of food wasted

If we don’t change our habits, the plastic waste doubles by 2050.2, 4

(Micro)plastics in the oceans

Plastic is the most common type of marine litter.6 Over 20 000 tons of plastics end up in the oceans every day.7 Microplastics in the marine environments have been massively studied. However, their quantification is still problematic. The estimated amount of microplastics in the seawater is between zero and 400 particles per cubic meter.7

11 billion plastic items are estimated to be entangled in coral reefs, which impairs the fitness of the corals.7

In 2015, scientists sampled Arctic deep-sea sediment and found 42–6595 microplastics/kg. 80 % of the plastic particles were smaller than 25 µm.8

Hydal

Great Pacific Garbage Patch

GPGP is a major ocean plastic accumulation zone formed in subtropical waters between California and Hawaii. 45–129 thousand tons of ocean plastic are floating inside an area of 1.6 million km2. Over three quarters of the GPGP items is debris larger than 5 cm and at least 46 % is comprised of fishing nets.

Microplastics we breathe

Microplastics are so light, they can be transported by the air for long distances. Hence, microplastics can be found in remote places like the Tibetan plain. In Paris, 118 microplastic particles/m2/day were found in the air on average. Higher concentration was found indoors.7 However, limited data are available on levels of microplastics in the air.

The land we inhabit

According to some estimates, soils carry 4more microplastics than oceans. However, sufficient quantitative data about microplastics is missing especially for soil ecosystems. The highest amount of microplastics were found close to roads in industrial districts of Sydney – 7 weight percent. While Swiss protected forest areas contained only 0,0055 % of microplastics.10 Chinese studies report from 16 to 18 760 microplastic particles per kilogram of agricultural soil.11, 12

Top predators endangered

Sea turtles became a symbol of marine plastic pollution.13 However, even animals on land are not protected from this threat – 1 % of camels die of plastic clogging their intestines.14 Plastics ingested by various animals accumulate in their bodies and are transferred through the food chain. Thus, top predators are the main endangered by (micro)plastics ingestion. Human is one of them.

Microplastics we drink

Safe drinking water is high on the political agenda – being a target of Sustainable Development Goals of the UN. Czech scientist tested water from three Czech water sources and showed that 1 liter of treated drinking water carries 340–630 microplastic particles.15

Microplastics are very often found in fish, seafood, but also salt, honey, etc.7

References

1 Pham, T.-H., H.-T. Do, L.-A. Phan Thi, et al. Global challenges in microplastics: From fundamental understanding to advanced degradations toward sustainable strategies. Chemosphere. 2021, 267: 129275. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2020.129275.

2 Lebreton, L. and A. Andrady. Future scenarios of global plastic waste generation and disposal. Palgrave Communications. 2019, 5(1): 6. doi: 10.1057/s41599-018-0212-7.

3 Bioplastics, E., 2019. Bioplastics market data 2019 [WWW document]. https://www.european-bioplastics.org/market/

4 Geyer, R., J. R. Jambeck and K. L. Law. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances. 2017, 3(7): e1700782. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1700782.

5 Zaman, A. and P. Newman. Plastics: are they part of the zero-waste agenda or the toxic-waste agenda? Sustainable Earth. 2021, 4(1): 4. doi: 10.1186/s42055-021-00043-8.

6 Schmid, C., L. Cozzarini and E. Zambello. Microplastic’s story. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 2020: 111820. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2020.111820.

7 Patil, S., A. Bafana, P. K. Naoghare, et al. Environmental prevalence, fate, impacts, and mitigation of microplastics—a critical review on present understanding and future research scope. Environmental Science and Pollution Research. 2021, 28(5): 4951-4974. doi: 10.1007/s11356-020-11700-4.

8 Bergmann, M., V. Wirzberger, T. Krumpen, et al. High Quantities of Microplastic in Arctic Deep-Sea Sediments from the HAUSGARTEN Observatory. Environmental Science & Technology. 2017, 51(19): 11000-11010. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.7b03331.

9 Lebreton, L., B. Slat, F. Ferrari, et al. Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic. Scientific Reports. 2018, 8(1): 4666. doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-22939-w.

10 Fojt, J., J. David, R. Přikryl, et al. A critical review of the overlooked challenge of determining micro-bioplastics in soil. Science of The Total Environment. 2020, 745: 140975. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.140975.

11 Fei, Y., S. Huang, H. Zhang, et al. Response of soil enzyme activities and bacterial communities to the accumulation of microplastics in an acid cropped soil. Science of The Total Environment. 2020, 707: 135634. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.135634.

12 Ding, L., S. Zhang, X. Wang, et al. The occurrence and distribution characteristics of microplastics in the agricultural soils of Shaanxi Province, in north-western China. Science of The Total Environment. 2020, 720: 137525. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.137525.

13 Lynch, J. M. Quantities of Marine Debris Ingested by Sea Turtles: Global Meta-Analysis Highlights Need for Standardized Data Reporting Methods and Reveals Relative Risk. Environmental Science & Technology. 2018, 52(21): 12026-12038. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.8b02848.

14 Eriksen, M., A. Lusher, M. Nixon and U. Wernery. The plight of camels eating plastic waste. Journal of Arid Environments. 2021, 185: 104374. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaridenv.2020.104374.

15 Pivokonsky, M., L. Cermakova, K. Novotna, et al. Occurrence of microplastics in raw and treated drinking water. Sci Total Environ. 2018, 643: 1644-1651. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.08.102.