Microplastics: What Do We Know about Them?

Microplastic litter, especially as a component of marine debris, has become a major topic of discussion and media coverage. What does it all mean to us and our environment?


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Top 3 Takeaways:

-The plastics industry supports more and better research on microplastics.
-Currently there's no evidence to suggest that exposure to microplastics has any negative impact on human health.
-Everyone agrees on one thing: plastics, large or small, don’t belong in our waterways.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are very small (generally less than 5 millimeters in size) plastic particles that can originate from a variety of sources, such as ingredients in cigarette filters, textile fibers and cleaning or personal care products, and dust from car and truck tires, as well as from larger plastic products broken down by the effects of the sun, wind and ocean waves.

You may hear the terms “primary” and “secondary” microplastics. Primary microplastics are manufactured to be tiny in order to serve a specific function — for example, as an abrasive in a consumer product. Secondary microplastics come from the breakdown of larger plastic items.

Are microplastics harming marine life?

Research has indeed found microplastics in fish and other marine life, and additional studies are underway. But according to a January 2019 report published by SAPEA, a consortium of more than 100 science academies across Europe, the existing evidence does not show that the presence of microplastics causes harm to aquatic organisms. As the scientist who led the study stated:

“The evidence about nano- and microplastics remains uncertain, and it is by its nature complex, but so far there is no good reason to think they pose widespread risks to humans or the environment.”

Although some laboratory studies have found a health impact on marine life such as scallops and mussels after exposing them to high levels of microplastic particles, the report notes that the animals would not be exposed to such high concentrations of microplastics in the wild.

Even studies on animals in the wild must be looked at closely for what they do—and do not—conclude.

For example, researchers at the University of Exeter examined the digestive tracts of 50 deceased sea mammals found on beaches. They found evidence of microplastics in all the animals, but the causes of their deaths remain unknown. The study’s co-author said, “…the [microplastics] levels are low and we don’t yet know what effect, if any, these particles may be having on the individuals.”

Are microplastics harmful to my health?

The authors of the SAPEA report discussed above concluded that “we have no evidence of widespread risk to human health from NMPs [nano- and microplastics] at present.” Similarly, reports from the Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) agree that—although it is evident that humans are exposed to some level of microplastics through the consumption of seafoods and sea salt—research does not support the theory that microplastics affect human health or that eating seafood presents a human health risk.

You may also have heard that microplastics have been found in drinking water. The SAPEA report states, “the quality of studies that detected [microplastics] in…drinking water is limited, which makes it difficult to draw conclusions.

Collectively, this means that we have no full and balanced view about the occurrence of microplastics in food and drinking water…” As a result, “there is insufficient data to assess exposure for humans, let alone to assess the human health risks of [microplastics] in drinking water and food.”

What is the plastics industry doing to put a stop to microplastics in our oceans?

Organizations worldwide, including those who produced the reports or studies above, are calling for steps to reduce microplastic marine waste and more scientific research to help us understand microplastics. The plastics industry actively supports these goals.

Plastics don’t belong in the ocean or waterways. That’s why the industry is investing in recycling and new recovery technologies and helping people learn to recycle so that every product is put to its highest and best use.

Plastics don’t belong in the ocean or waterways. That’s why the industry is investing in recycling and new recovery technologies and helping people learn to recycle so that every product is put to its highest and best use.

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