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Out of Sight, Out of Mind – Microplastic Pollution Needs Addressing

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Microplastic Ocean

Plastic has become an integral part of our lives due to its capability of being shaped by heat and pressure. This plasticity of the material allows it to be made into a variety of products, permeating our lives and planet as a result. We are currently producing a whopping 430 million metric tons of new plastics every year, a number expected to triple by 2060.

However, about 60% of plastics have lifetimes of less than five years. But what's even more damaging is the fact that it takes hundreds or thousands of years for plastics to decompose, and in the meantime, they wreak havoc on the environment. So, while their versatility has made them ubiquitous, plastic's durability has caused this material to become a constant pollutant in our environment. 

When it comes to disposing of plastic, half of it goes straight to landfill. Concerns over this have led to increasing calls by both the general public and environmentalists for the need to recycle plastic. Unfortunately, only 9% of plastic gets recycled. This is largely due to a prevalent ‘out of sight, out of mind' attitude towards plastic waste, a trend clearly observable in Europe.

Click here to learn about the recent dive surveys that show the urgent need for wastewater collection solutions.

Europe's Plastic Waste Ends up in Nature

New research reveals that a good amount of the plastic waste from Europe that is sent to Vietnam cannot be recycled and is being dumped in nature. This is despite strict regulations in the European Union on recycling plastic, owing to the limited supervision of plastic waste exported to this Southeast Asian country.

To quantify the problem at hand, consider this: Europe exports about half of its collected plastic waste to various countries in the Global South, including notable amounts to Vietnam.

So, led by Kaustubh Thapa from Utrecht University, the research team went to the Minh Khai Craft Village, which is dubbed the ‘plastic craft village,' to see what exactly is happening with this waste. 

The journey of European plastic revealed that residents were “cooking, eating, and living within the recycling facility, surrounded by the noxious fumes of melting plastic,” while children were playing in the “suffocating environment.” 

About seven million liters of toxic wastewater are dumped into the waterways of the village daily, as per the research. While such a waste trade is “profitable for some,” the lead researcher, Thapa, who's a PhD researcher at Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, noted that “shifting producer responsibility of waste management” like this to villages causes danger to people, communities, and the environment.

This research shows a striking contrast between the plastic waste management policies in Vietnam and Europe as well as the reality of the recycling hubs in the Global South. 

The lead researcher noted that while European consumers make efforts to separate recycling, they are really of no use, given how the waste is being tackled further in the waste management cycle. This is why Thapa said: 

“Focusing on increasing recycling rates in the EU without systematically tackling the associated human and environmental harm throughout the entire value chain is neither ethical, circular or sustainable.” 

The Disintegration of Plastic Into Microplastics

It is the careless use of plastics and the negligence in disposing of them that have resulted in tons of debris in the environment, which degrades into smaller microparticles over a long period of time.  

About 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the aquatic environment every year, which eventually breaks down into smaller particles, leading to the formation of microplastics.

Microplastics, as the name suggests, are really tiny plastics. They are plastic fragments in size from 1 micron to less than 5 millimeters. These are pervasive pollutants that have been found in all parts of the global ocean carried by storms and floods. 

Microplastics are of two types: primary microplastics, which are manufactured, and secondary microplastics, which are the result of larger plastics' disintegration. These tiny plastics result from the breakdown of larger plastics due to exposure to environmental factors as well as commercial product development. It is a pollutant that is harmful to human and animal health and the environment. 

A number of studies have found microplastic contamination in sediment, water, and various organisms of marine ecosystems. An emerging environmental contaminant, microplastics, has also been detected in freshwater bodies like rivers, lakes, reservoirs, estuaries, and the atmosphere. 

According to a study in Aug. 2023, microplastics are widespread in the Great Lakes. Alarmingly, as much as 90% of water samples from the region exceeded safe levels for the flora and fauna. 

To tackle this menace of microplastics, the study called for a coordinated monitoring strategy that would require standardized methods to measure, identify, and report on these tiny plastics in the Great Lake region. Additionally, it brought attention to the much-needed ecological risk assessment and management framework to trigger specific management actions. 

Microplastics wreak havoc in the oceans, having been found in various marine organisms, ranging from plankton to whales. In the ocean, these microplastics bind with other harmful chemicals, which are then ingested by marine life. Consequently, they enter the food chain, ultimately ending up in seafood consumed by humans.

There have been reports that even organisms found in the deep sea are consuming plastic. And now, studies say, microplastics are being detected in remote islands, risking endangering species. 

Microplastics Finding Their Way Into Endangered Species' Food

Microplastics are now making their way into the marine food webs, as per the latest study that investigated how microplastic bioaccumulation was affecting the endangered Galápagos penguin as an indicator species. It further looked into just how deeply this microplastic bioaccumulation has entered the food web in the isolated Galápagos Islands.

The study was conducted in a collaborative effort by researchers from Galápagos and the ESPOL Polytechnic School and led by the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia.

The researchers did an analysis of seawater that was collected around the human-populated Santa Cruz Island, which is situated near Galápagos penguin colonies. This analysis revealed plastic particles in the water body.

The researchers created a food web model for Galápagos penguins, whose scientific name is Spheniscus mendiculus. This was focused on the Galápagos penguin diet, which includes sardine, barracuda, anchovy, salema, and herring, as well as on penguin scat. 

The food web model utilized the ecological modeling software model Ecopath and Ecosim (EwE) with the Ecotracer approach (a tool to analyze the transport of contaminants and persistent pollutants) to track the bioaccumulation potential of microplastics in the penguins' food web. 

A broader model was also applied for penguin's habitats as part of the Bolivar Channel Ecosystem (BCE) of the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR).

The predictions of the food web bioaccumulation model revealed a quick increase in the accumulation of microplastics as well as contamination in the prey organisms of penguins. This has resulted in Galápagos penguins showing the highest level of microplastics per biomass. Galápagos penguins are followed by barracuda, anchovy, sardine, herring, salema, and predatory zooplankton.

The study's lead author, Karly McMullen, who's a recent MSc graduate from the University of British Columbia UBC's Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries scientists, said these predictions highlight the accumulation behavior of the microplastics and their residence time in the gut. 

“With microplastics emerging as a prominent ocean pollutant, entering the environment every day, there is a growing concern for marine fauna and coastal wildlife, particularly if this anthropogenic threat is reaching even the most remote and protected areas such as the Galápagos Archipelago.” 

– said McMullen

With this model, the idea has been to provide data to support risk management of hazardous plastic waste. Moreover, as Dr. Juan Jose Alava, an honorary research associate at the same university, noted, this model further aims to provide the science to promote a reduction in microplastic emissions in the oceans and marine remote UNESCO Heritage sites such as the Galápagos Islands. This is further expected to help inform local and international marine strategy to preserve endangered, native seabird species of GMR.

“It is imperative that we prioritize efforts to reduce the input of microplastics into vulnerable ecosystems and food webs, particularly such as that of the endangered Galápagos penguin.” 

– said Alava, the senior author

Addressing the Microplastic Pollution

Plastics are an emerging environmental problem due to their pervasiveness, and scientists are still researching the harmful effects on the health of humans and animals.

Microplastics are tiny particles that are highly variable in size, shape, and chemistry. Also, they are found in different concentrations in the environment, making it hard to determine their detrimental effects. In animal studies, microplastic particles are capable of entering the bloodstream, lymphatic system, and even the liver.

A study conducted in Austria in 2018 by research scientist Philipp Schwabl and analytical chemist Bettina Liebmann first stated that humans are, in fact, consuming microplastics. 

A study earlier this year by Columbia University researchers meanwhile found that one liter of bottled water sold in stores contains an average of 240,000 plastic particles — ten to hundred times more plastic than estimated in the form of nanoparticles. 

These tiny particles enter our bloodstream through lung or digestive tract tissues, from where they distribute harmful chemicals in our body and cells. These chemicals then accumulate in the brain, kidneys, and liver, eventually reaching the brains, hearts, livers, kidneys, and lungs of unborn children.

Consequently, the presence of endocrine-disrupting chemicals like bisphenols, phthalates, heavy metals, flame retardants, and PFAS has led to soaring health costs. In the US alone, these costs climbed to about $250 billion in 2018.

Given microplastic's health and cost concerns, Asian countries have been saying no to plastic imports. For instance, up until 2017, much of the plastic waste was sent to China, but due to the hazards of importing solid waste, the country announced that it wouldn't be accepting “yang laji” or foreign garbage anymore. Now, we are seeing how the imported garbage is affecting Vietnam.

However, this is not to say that outsourcing plastic waste for recycling is not possible in a sustainable way. Currently, the United Nations is working with countries for an international plastics treaty. Under the treaty, 175 nations have agreed to develop a legally binding agreement on plastic pollution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the production, use, and disposal of plastic.

Besides the UN's ongoing negotiations around a legally binding Global Plastics Treaty, efforts are being made in the form of the European Green New Deal and its Circular Economy Actions Plan, all of which Thapa says “cannot ignore our findings.” He further added:

“As we consume more and more, and thus generate more waste, waste trade for recycling must be tackled on a systematic level.” 

In the mission to mitigate the damage plastics cause, countries have been taking several measures, including banning lightweight plastic bags. 

Governments around the world have also been imposing some form of restriction on plastic usage and introducing legislation focused on the production and sales of microbeads. Back in 2018, the US banned the use of microbeads in cosmetics, and more recently, Europe restricted the sale of cosmetic products containing them.

However, these restrictions do not cover all deliberately manufactured microplastics, and secondary microplastics have yet to be addressed. 

Companies Putting in Efforts to Address the Problem

Many for-profit and nonprofit organizations like 4ocean and Ocean Cleanup have taken initiatives and developed technologies to remove plastic debris, including microplastics, from oceans. So, let's take a look at a couple of prominent names that are working on addressing this problem:

#1. Coca Cola 

The beverage company is focused on improving its waste management systems through its Collecting and Recycling Program. As a part of this program, 61% of the equivalent bottles and cans the company introduced into the market in 2022 were collected and refilled or collected for recycling. The company aims to enhance these efforts, targeting a 100% collection rate by the end of this decade.

finviz dynamic chart for  KO

With a market cap of $256.68 bln, Coca-Cola's shares are currently trading at $59.37 up 0.75% YTD. The company recorded a revenue (TTM) of $45.03bln and has an EPS (TTM) of 2.48 and a P/E (TTM) of 23.93. The company pays a dividend yield of 3.10%.

#2. Matter

This startup develops solutions to capture, harvest, and recycle microplastics. Its filtration technology, known as Matter's technology, is designed to capture microplastics, thus preventing them from polluting the natural environment. Following capture, the startup focuses on harvesting these microplastics and then recycling them. It also utilizes microfibers to develop sustainable packaging solutions. 

Overall, Matter's emphasis is on R&D, feasibility programs, and consultancy services for a range of clients, including commercial sites, wastewater treatment plants, dye houses, and textile manufacturers.

Final Thoughts

So, as we saw, millions of tons of plastic are produced, used, and discarded every year. The plastic then disintegrates into tiny microplastics, which move from the atmosphere carrying toxic chemicals into our bodies. It also gets absorbed by plants, settles into soil, and deposits into the oceans, where it then harms aquatic life.

Given their durable nature, microplastics present long-term health and ecological risks. It's crucial that we deepen our understanding of microplastics and their impact on humans, animals, and the environment. Moreover, it's evident that countries need to confront the issue of microplastic pollution and develop long-term strategies to mitigate its unintended consequences.

Click here to find out if a sustainability metric can curb plastic pollution.

Gaurav started trading cryptocurrencies in 2017 and has fallen in love with the crypto space ever since. His interest in everything crypto turned him into a writer specializing in cryptocurrencies and blockchain. Soon he found himself working with crypto companies and media outlets. He is also a big-time Batman fan.