By Lucy Gibson
We know that plastic is devastating wildlife and intoxicating our water bodies, but until recently we have known little about the impact the plastic system is having on people.
Microplastics are non-biodegradable pieces of plastic which measure less than 5mm. These tiny pieces of plastic are causing havoc in our environments and ecosystems. As of yet, their effects have not caused substantial harm to humans, disincentivising action; however, a 2017 study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) concluded that annually 1.5 million tonnes of microplastics enters ocean water. Microplastics have been identified in oceans across the world, as well as lakes in India, such as Vembanad Lake in Kerala, the subject of a previous article here at lakesofindia.com
The unchecked disposal of plastic on such a large scale is causing an enormous negative impact on wildlife and even humans from marine environment pollution as we shall learn.
There are two categories of microplastics: primary and secondary.
Primary microplastics are tiny particles designed for commercial use, such as cosmetics.
Plastic microbeads are in fact used in a number of personal care products such as exfoliating shower gels, toothpaste and make-up. A study by the Dehli-based NGO Toxic Links in March 2018, found that microplastics were present in 50% of face wash products and over 30% of toothpaste products readily available on the Indian market. Due to their size, these microbeads are too tiny to be filtered by water treatment plants, some research also suggests that some manufacturers even deliberately use microplastics to increase the volume and weight of a product. There is no law which prevents the use of microplastics in products. Health hazards posed by microplastics are further aggravated by the fact that items such as toothpaste, face wash or soap are used regularly and unavoidable.
Fleece and synthetic clothing also shed microplastics into the water with each wash and are a primary microplastic. In fact, a fleece jacket sheds about 2,000 pieces of plastic per wash. Wastewater treatment plants do not have the ability to screen these tiny pieces. The result is that they end up in the discharged water.
Over 80% of the waste generated on land finds its way into oceans; plastic forms a major part of the waste. In India today more than 25,000 tonnes of plastic waste is produced daily, of which 10,000 tonnes goes to landfill.
But plastic does not biodegrade, all it does is keeps breaking down into smaller pieces with the effects of water and sun making it harder and harder to spot. The tiny particles are then consumed by marine wildlife and indirectly, even by seafood eating humans. In fact, people could actually be ingesting approximately 5 grams of microplastic every week – this is the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of plastic!
When microplastics enter the food chain and ecosystem, it can disbalance the entire structure. Chemical toxins such as DDT and BPA from factory effluents and other sources stick to the microplastics floating around in the ocean and enter the digestive system when they are consumed risking a number of health conditions.
Plastic is everywhere.
But in many ways, India is leading in the fight against plastic pollution. Here are a few examples:
- The state of Maharashtra has banned almost all kinds of plastic pollution from plastic bags, to single use plastics like spoons, straws, and plates for packaging food;
- The National Green Tribunal directed a ban on disposable plastics in Delhi.
- As part of Kerala’s Haritha Keralam Green Protocol mission since 2014, various steps have been taken to ensure that neither plastic is used nor waste is generated during different festivals. In fact, Green Protocol has gone so big that a village in Kannur, India’s first plastic free district, decided to give marriage certificates only if green protocol is followed.
There are also a few things we can do to avoid microplastic pollution:
1. Don’t litter and pick up all the waste that you see on beach and on the banks of water bodies. Take part in clean-up programmes.
2. Avoid buying and using products with microbeads. Look for the words like ‘polythylene’ or ‘polysterene’ on the ingredient label.
3. Reduce use of plastic bags and opt for reusable bags made from biodegradable materials.
4. Wash fleece and other synthetic products less often to avoid the synthetic fibres polluting the water. Products such as Guppyfriend Washing Bags collect the microfibers released from washing clothes ensuring they can be disposed of safely.
We must find ways to adapt our behaviours for the sake of our waterbodies, wildlife, and our health