Microplastics: Plastic that never disappears

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Microplastics: Plastic that never disappears

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Microplastics: Plastic that never disappears

Subheading text
Plastic waste is everywhere, and they are becoming smaller than ever.
    • Author:
    • Author name
      Quantumrun Foresight
    • April 21, 2023

    Microplastics, which are tiny plastic particles, have become widespread, leading to concerns about their potential impact on ecosystems and human health. Recent research has revealed that microplastics are homogenized in the environment and transported by air and water cycles. This trend has increased the exposure of living organisms to microplastics and made it difficult to contain their spread.

    Microplastics context

    Plastic bags and bottles, synthetic clothes, tires, and paints, among others, disintegrate into microplastics, which can stay airborne for around a week. At this time, air can take them across continents and oceans. When waves hit the shore, water droplets filled with microplastics are launched high into the air, where they evaporate and release these particles. Similarly, tire movement causes plastic-containing flecks to travel into the air. As rain falls, the cloud of particles is deposited onto the ground. Meanwhile, filtration plants that treat urban waste and add it to fertilizers have microplastics trapped in the sludge. These fertilizers, in turn, transfer them to the soil, from where it enters the food chain.  

    The dynamics of wind and ocean currents have carried microplastics deep into the earth and sea ecosystems, even into sensitive and protected ecosystems. More than 1,000 metric tons fall on 11 protected areas in the US yearly, for instance. Microplastics also carry bacteria, viruses, and chemicals, and exposing these to sensitive ecosystems can be damaging. 

    The effects of these pollutants are pronounced on smaller creatures that feed on microscopic organisms. As microplastics enter their food chains, they take toxins in along with their food. Microplastics can affect their digestive and reproductive systems, from worms to crabs to mice. Additionally, microplastics break down into nano plastics, which current equipment cannot detect. 

    Disruptive impact

    As concerns about the environmental impact of plastic production continue to grow, public outcry over the failure to curb plastic production is likely to increase. This trend will lead to a renewed focus on shifting to more sustainable, recyclable materials. The disposable, single-use plastic product industry is expected to be hit the hardest as consumers increasingly reject these products in favor of more eco-friendly alternatives. This shift in consumer behavior is already starting to impact the market, with some major companies announcing plans to phase out single-use plastics.

    Another industry that may come under increasing scrutiny is fast fashion. As consumers become more aware of the environmental impact of textile production, they are likely to start looking for plant-fiber-based clothing as a more sustainable alternative. However, this transition is expected to be challenging for many companies, and jobs across the sector may be affected.

    Meanwhile, the paint industry may also face increased regulation to prevent the formation of microbeads. Microbeads are tiny plastic particles that can end up in waterways and have been shown to negatively impact aquatic ecosystems. As a result, there may be a push to ban spray paints that contain microbeads, which could have significant implications for the industry.

    Despite the challenges these changes may pose, there are also opportunities for growth and innovation. Bioplastics and other industries that produce sustainable materials will likely see increased demand, and research into greener materials may receive more funding. Ultimately, the move towards a more sustainable future will require collaboration between industry, government, and consumers. 

    Implications of microplastics

    Wider implications of microplastic pollution may include:

    • Government regulations over plastic production and the increased call for recycling.
    • Unpredictable alteration of soil microbial ecosystems, underground water movement patterns, and nutrient cycles.
    • Effects on oxygen production as populations of oceanic plankton are affected due to toxin ingestion.
    • Increasingly negative effects on the fishing and tourism industries, which depend on healthy ecosystems.
    • Drinking water or food contamination impacting public health and increasing healthcare costs.
    • Damaged infrastructure, such as water treatment facilities, leading to costly repairs.
    • Increased regulation and environmental policies.
    • People in developing countries becoming more vulnerable to the harmful effects of microplastic pollution due to a lack of infrastructure and resources.
    • Workers in industries that produce or dispose of plastic products having an increased risk of exposure to microplastics.
    • Innovations in waste management and recycling technologies to reduce microplastic pollution.

    Questions to consider

    • How do you think the microplastic problem can be solved?
    • How can governments better regulate industries that produce microplastics?

    Insight references

    The following popular and institutional links were referenced for this insight: