WE ARE EATING PLASTICS
We see stomach-churning pictures of cows and buffaloes and whales and other animals dying in extreme pain because they had consumed plastic. But this ghastly sight evokes only lip sympathy among most of us.
What we don’t realise is that we are not only killing animals with the help of the plastic Frankenstein that we created, but our own existence is now under grave threat. In fact, experts believes that humankind could be wiped out within 200 years unless urgent action is taken.
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According to the UN, there are about 46,000 articles of discarded plastic per square mile of the sea. After all, an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the oceans every year. That is equal to dumping a garbage truck-load of plastic every minute.
There will be 12 billion tonnes of plastic in landfills and the environment by 2050, it says.
It is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. Environmentalists have predicted that by that year, almost 99 percent of all seabirds on Earth might have consumed some quantity of plastic.
Only 9 percent of plastics ever made have actually been recycled and the remaining 91 percent will kill us and our future generations through a million cuts.
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The waste plastic strewn all around is only the tip of the iceberg. Its tiny pieces called microplastics pose an even bigger threat because these have now entered our food chain too and will accumulate in our bodies as the bigger pieces did in the case of land and marine animals.
These are not a specific kind of plastic, but any type of plastic fragment that is less than 5 mm in length. Primary sources include plastic powders in moulding, microbeads in cosmetic formulations, and plastic nanoparticles in a variety of industrial processes. In addition, virgin resin pellets are widely used during plastics manufacture. Secondary microplastics originate from the fragmentation and weathering of larger plastic items. This can happen during the life cycle of plastic products such as textiles, tyres, etc.
Microplastics have contaminated the entire ocean surface, depth, and seafloor and are entering seafood since it can get stuck in the gills, mouth, stomachs and the digestive system of fish, making it hard for them to breathe and eat.
Creatures from plankton to earthworms to humans are eating them, posing a potentially serious health threat to animals and ecosystems. The problem is only expected to balloon as plastic production increases exponentially—from a mere two million tonnes annually in 1950 to more than 300 million tonnes today, and a projected 33 billion metric tonnes each year by 2050.
Dr Ivone Mirpuri, a leading hormone specialist, says that chemicals in plastics have triggered rising levels of abnormal development and illnesses over the past five decades, ranging from stunted fertility and male/female sex malformations to obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart attacks and cognitive, behavioural and other brain-related problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder(ADHD).
“There is now solid scientific evidence that so-called endocrine disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, now commonplace in the natural environment as a result of plastic pollution, are blocking the natural function of hormones,’ she says.
Dr Mirpuri describes EDCs as the ‘No. 1 threat’ to humankind and she believes that humankind could be wiped out within 200 years unless urgent action is taken to reduce plastic pollution.
Since 2009, Mangalore’s Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) scientists have recovered plastic from the gut of dozens of species: mackerel near Mangalore, yellowfish tuna near Kochi and anchovies off the coast of Alappuzha, among them.
In a 2015 Science study, the researchers estimated that India had dumped 0.6 million tonnes of plastic into the ocean in 2010. China was the top dumper, while India ranked 12th and the US ranked 20th.
This was despite the fact that Indians generated only around 0.34 kg of waste per person per day (ppd), while Americans threw away 2.58 kg ppd. The problem was that India was mismanaging over 80 percent of its waste, while in the U.S. it was only 2 percent.
If you look at packaging of fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) goods, the US and Europe are the manufacturers. But we are buying them and polluting the environment, because there is no awareness that what we throw comes back to us.
Ironically, we freely use microplastics in the shape of microbeads in toothpaste and clothing fibres (like polyester). In fact, synthetic clothing is the largest contributor, given that each garment sheds 1,900 fibres per wash. Personal care products like cleansers and exfoliators have microbeads that can easily pass through sewage and drain.
A study conducted by Toxic Links in March 2018 confirmed that microplastics were indeed present in 50 percent of face wash products commonly found in the Indian market. More than 30 percent toothpaste products were found to contain microplastics, an alarming amount. It is not difficult for these microplastics to slip through during production. But Toxic Links, and a few other organisations claim that microplastics are often used by manufacturers to help them increase the volume and weight of a product.
These and additional toxicants get into the oceans through runoff from rivers and waterways, especially near petroleum extraction and processing facilities.
Extensive and indiscriminate use of food packages and drink bottles, synthetic textiles, car tyres, paints, personal care products (e.g., facial cleaners, toothpaste), and electronic equipment are some of the main contributors to microplastic contamination of the environment and food chain.
An IIT study found that 63 percent of the microplastic particles were in the form of fragments and 37 percent were fibres. These microfibres are most commonly present in synthetic clothing like outdoor gear, leggings, and other clothing made from acrylic and polyester, polyamide, spandex.
This clothing can shed up to 700,000 fibres in each wash, which contributes to the microplastic tragedy.
Because they do not break down easily, they can accumulate in fish, birds and other marine life.
Microplastics have also invaded sea salt. One kilogram can contain over 600 microplastics. Even if you consume as little as one tsp of salt, you will be eating three microplastics a day.
Microplastics have also been found in honey and beer. Each bottle of beer may be having tens of microplastics.
But the biggest known source of microplastics that we consume is bottled water. When researchers in Germany examined a variety of types of glass and plastic water bottles, they found microplastics in most of them. Single-use water bottles contained between two and 44 microplastics per litre, while returnable bottles (designed for collection under a deposit scheme) contained between 28 and 241 microplastics per litre. The microplastics came from the packaging, which means we could be exposing ourselves to more of them every time we fill up a plastic bottle in order to reduce waste.
Indoor dust too is compromised. A recent study published in Environmental Pollution estimated that we could get an annual dose of almost 70,000 microplastics from the dust that settles on to our dinner – and that is only one of our daily meals.
Even tea bags contribute to microplastic pollution as the threads which hold it together are made from fibre. Once disposed of, the rest of the bag degrades, leaving the fibre to its will.
Polyethylene cups that you get at tea stalls or joints like Mcdonalds are made out of layers of polyethylene. Polyethylene is one of the largest contributors to plastic pollution. The cups and even some packaging material are not biodegradable and hence very easily contribute to microplastics.
India today produces more than 25,000 tonnes of plastic waste daily, of which 10,000 tonnes goes to landfills, or is casually discarded. Many states have banned or regulated the use of plastic now, but such steps may have come too late, as India struggles to manage its huge plastic waste. Experts are afraid that a similar mistake is being made with microplastics. The National Green Tribunal in January 2017 had asked the Union Government to test leading cosmetics brands for microplastics. Till date, only one study on microplastics has been conducted by the Bureau of Indian Standards but that was on microplastics itself, not on consumer products.
Dr Naresh Bansal, a gastroenterologist with Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi says, “Microplastics can affect nervous and gastric systems. Pregnant women and children are the most vulnerable. This study should not create panic because if microplastics enter body in small amount, they do not cause any harm as such. But if it is ingested in large amount, it can be harmful. In the longer term, they can even be carcinogenic.”
Microplastics may also act as vehicles or carriers for environmental contaminants and other chemicals that are added during their manufacturing process. Chemicals such as styrene, toxic metals, phthalates, bisphenol A, polychlorinated biphenyls, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons may be absorbed on the surface of microplastics and may act as “substrates.” These pollutants and additives can be transferred from ingested microplastics to animal tissues and cause impairment of key body functions.