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Microplastics, macro problem

Microplastics are a symptom of our plastic planet problem

 Plastic Planet

The federal government has launched new efforts this year to address plastic pollution – a problem St. Albert residents are all too familiar with as their blue bags are rejected due to unwanted forms of plastic waste.
This story is the first in a three-part series on the nature of the plastic problem and what we can do about it.


How much plastic did you eat this week?

Probably about five grams worth, or the equivalent of a credit card, reports a study from the University of Newcastle released last June.

You might not have dined directly on that MasterCard, but the plastic it represents was there in the form of microscopic particles in your food, drink and air – all consumed while you were wearing plastic-fibre clothes, too, and maybe even using plastic cups and utensils.

“Right now you’re probably surrounded by no less than a dozen plastic items,” said Kieran Cox, a PhD candidate at the University of Victoria studying this plastic pollution. Odds are you won’t recycle them when you’re done with them, leaving them free to break into microplastics, enter our food supply and end up on our plates.

Microplastics are a symptom of the fact that we now live on a plastic planet. Plastic and plastic waste has infiltrated every part of our lives, with serious implications for our environment and our health.

It’s a direct consequence of the mind-boggling amount of plastic waste we’re create every day. An Environment Canada study released in June found 4,667 kilotonnes of plastic (about 125 kg per person) enters the Canadian economy each year. Just nine per cent of that is recycled – the rest ends up in our land, air and water through landfills, incineration and litter.

The situation is similar across the globe. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates a garbage truck’s worth of plastic waste enters the ocean every minute – and as a result, we’ll have more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 at this rate.

Small wonder, then, that researchers have now found microplastics everywhere from the bottom of the Mariana Trench to the tops of the Pyrenees Mountains.

Plastic waste kills animals, strangling them, clogging their stomachs and delivering toxins that affect animal breeding and immune systems, the WWF reports. We’re not yet sure how it affects human health, but it certainly costs us millions to manage it and frustrates scores of residents who have to pick it up from our riverbanks and pick it out of their rejected blue bags.

Canadians want action on plastic pollution. This summer, the Gazette is taking a three-part look at how our actions are turning our planet into plastic, and what we can do about it.

Microplastic detectives

Researchers are only now coming to grips with the ubiquitous nature of microplastics.

MacEwan University chemist Matthew Ross was researching this plastic pollutant at a stormwater pond in Edmonton last month.

In 2017, he and MacEwan biologist David Locky did a study that found microplastics throughout the North Saskatchewan River – the source of St. Albert’s drinking water. Now, they want to figure out how it’s moving through the food chain. That means netting water bugs from 60 stormwater ponds, dissolving the bugs and counting up all the microplastic particles in their bellies with a microscope.

“I don’t think we’ve had a sample yet where we haven’t found microplastics,” Ross said.

Microplastics are bits of plastic smaller than five millimetres, reports Lisa Erdle, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Rochman Lab, which specializes in microplastics. This covers everything from fragments clogging bird stomachs to fibres floating in the air.

While some microplastics are intentionally released (such as microbeads in cosmetics, which are now banned in Canada), Locky said most come from the breakdown of larger plastic items in the environment.

“Macroplastics are microplastics waiting to happen.”

Researchers have found microplastics in fish, beer, salt, sugar, honey, air and tap water around the world. Cox crunched the numbers from a vast array of microplastics-in-food studies last June and determined the average American adult consumed at least 110,000 plastic particles each year. (The U of Newcastle study used a similar technique to arrive at its five grams per week estimate.) Cox noted that this was probably a drastic underestimate, as his study looked at just 15 per cent of the American diet.

Cox said most of the microplastics seen in the environment are microfibres from clothes.

By tossing clothes in the washing machine and studying the wash water, Erdle and the Rochman Lab have determined that individual garments can shed tens of thousands of microfibres every wash. Toronto alone may be pumping out 36 trillion microfibres a year through clothes washing.

Tires are another major source of microplastics, with a 2017 study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) pegging it as the No. 2 source of ocean microplastics worldwide after clothes washing. A 2018 study by Eunomia estimated some 68,000 tonnes per year of microplastic particles flake off car tires in the UK.

It’s still early days for microplastic research, but initial studies suggest we’re releasing a whole lot of them. The IUCN has estimated some 1.5 million tons of microplastics are released into the ocean each year – equivalent to one single-use plastic bag per person per week.

Poison? Possibly.

It’s easy to see how microplastics end up in people: we eat creatures that mistake these particles for food, and drink and inhale water and air infested with it. As plastic has no nutritional value – it’s not in the Canada Food Guide, at any rate –we’re probably not doing ourselves any good by eating it.

But are we doing ourselves harm? Erdle said scientists don’t yet have a full understanding of what these particles can do to people, but they do know they’re small enough to get into our brains.

“It’s the chemicals that make me worried,” she said: microplastics are known to contain and absorb known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors associated with a host of health impacts, and could transmit them to us. But since we’re exposed to those chemicals from so many other sources, it’s tough to say what microplastics are actually doing to us.

Lab studies have flagged a number of potential impacts of microplastics on marine animals, including weight loss, reduced fecundity, compromised intestinal function and liver toxicity, reports the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. No one’s sure if these effects persist at the population level, but that’s in large part because the necessary research hasn’t been done yet.

Still, Erdle said we know enough at this point to be worried.

“I think we do know enough that we should be thinking about taking action.”

What to do about it

“It is our overreliance and overproduction of plastic that’s resulted in microplastics now being incorporated into our food system,” Cox said. The more plastic waste we make, the more of it ends up on our plate.

And once that waste is in the environment, Cox, Ross and Erdle say it’s basically impossible for us to remove it – you can’t filter it from a lake without also catching every living thing in it.

Our best option at this point is to limit our exposure to and production of microplastics, Cox said. His study found a person who drank only tap water would swallow 22 times less microplastic per year than one who drank only bottled water, for example.

Erdle’s research has found specialized filters can catch up to 90 per cent of microplastics before they escape your washing machine.

“I would love to see these filters just built into washing machines,” she said, and the Rochman Lab has recommended people receive tax credits for installing them.

The Eunomia study found manufacturers have yet to invent tires that don’t shed microplastics in use. The study recommended individuals drive less and drive less aggressively – steps that would also help deal with the global climate crisis – to address this microplastic source.

Our best option is to simply use less plastic, Ross said. Less plastic used means less potential microplastic waste.

“It’s not feasible to go out and net all the plastics in this pond, but shutting off the taps in terms of plastic coming into the environment would be a good start.”

Next week, the Gazette will look at how you can shrink your plastic footprint.

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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