All across the world, people drinking a glass of water are also consuming microplastics. Coming from everyday items, these microplastics have infected more than 80 percent of five continents, according to Chris Tyree and Dan Morrison’s report for Orb Media. In one study, ninety-four percent of samples from places in the US—including Trump Tower in Manhattan—tested positive for microplastics. And now they’re moving into our food via plastic packaging and airborne fibers. The public is largely unaware of microplastics and their impacts on human health and the environment.
Microplastics are plastics that are less than five millimeters in length, which often result from the breakdown of larger plastic debris that ends up on the side of the road or in the ocean. Microbeads—once a common ingredient in health and beauty products—are also considered microplastics as they easily pass through filtration systems, ending up in natural water sources.
This problem has been neglected by almost everyone in the world, in part because the effects on the human body are relatively unknown. Meanwhile, factories produce approximately 300 million tons of plastic each year, 120 million tons of which will be thrown away. According to a February 2018 report in the Guardian, microplastics have affected whales and sharks the most, as they swallow hundreds of gallons of water every day. The microplastics that they also ingest can block the absorption of nutrients, as well as release toxic chemicals in their bodies as the plastics breakdown.
Corporate news outlets have offered sporadic coverage of this topic. In November 2017, establishment news organizations including CNN and the New York Times reported on attempts to ban plastic glitter. However, these reports did not emphasize microplastics that derive from from clothing, upholstery and carpets—consumer goods that people come in contact with on a daily basis. In 2016, the Washington Post ran an article on whether synthetic fleece and other clothing fabrics might be bad for the environment.
Fiona Harvey, “Whales and Shark Species at Increasing Risk from Microplastic Pollution–Study,” The Guardian, February 19, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/feb/05/whale-and-shark-species-at-increasing-risk-from-microplastic-pollution-study.
Chris Tyree and Dan Morrison, “Invisibles,” Orb Media, January 24, 2018, https://orbmedia.org/stories/Invisibles_plastics/multimedia.
Student Researcher: Halle Olson (North Central College)
Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)