What is Microplastics?
The New threat of Microplastics
As the name implies, it is plastic smaller than 5 mm in diameter, made known through a paper published in Science in 2004. They result from the development of products and the breakdown of larger plastics. Littered plastic bottles are washed into the ocean by the wind, where they become smaller particles under the influence of ultraviolet light and waves. Microplastics threaten the global environment and our health, such as by affecting the food chain from marine organisms that have taken in microplastics.
A key problem is that it is difficult to break down into harmless molecules. It takes hundreds or even thousands of years for them to decompose, and during that time they can destroy ecosystems. Although somewhat difficult to imagine, microplastics are lurking everywhere around us, including foodstuffs and consumer goods such as cosmetics and shampoo. A WWF study found that a person, people eat the equivalent of one credit card full of plastic per week.
Regulations are being tightened around Europe, with the Netherlands establishing a ban on the addition of plastic particles to products in 2015. However, it seems that the world is not yet on the same footing. How can we confront this problem with a sense of urgency? In the opinion piece that follows, we will consider what action we can take as consumers.
What kind of Option Do We Have?
When we hear the word “microplastics,” we tend to associate it with ocean issues, but microplastics are lurking in every aspect of our lives, including the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and the cosmetics we use. As mentioned in Highlights, we are taking plastic into our bodies without even knowing it.
Especially considering the fact that Japan ranks second in the world in per capita single-use plastic use, microplastics may be an unwitting threat to us all.
Certainly, Japan is a country with a very sensitive attitude toward hygiene, and as a result, there is a lot of contact with plastic, such as excessive packaging of snacks, seasonings, and fresh food, plastic shopping bags, small bags, drink cups, straws, and so on.
If we are living surrounded by so much plastic, we should be concerned not only about the marine environment and ecosystem, but also about its impact on our health. How should we deal with this problem?
The first possible solution is not to produce it. LANGBRETT, a German brand, has developed a net funded by Patagonia to prevent microplastics from flowing out when washing. By using this net, the amount of synthetic fibers that come off in the wash is reduced by an average of 79-86%, and the garments themselves are also prevented from deteriorating.
Alternatives can also be useful. Do the plastic products we currently use necessarily have to be plastic? You could try using items made of paper, eco-bags that can be used over and over again, or your own bottles. Furthermore, products made from biobased plastic, a plastic made from renewable biological resources, have recently been attracting attention. However, it will be necessary to determine whether they are truly environmentally friendly from other perspectives, such as production cost and durability.
And what we can do as a third option is to “recycle” as much as possible the plastic that has already been produced. We can start by washing and separating plastic bottles and Styrofoam thoroughly when we throw them away. Surprisingly, research at Inha University in South Korea has successfully recycled microplastics as lithium batteries, which were considered difficult to recycle.
Just as our world is making a little progress every day, tomorrow I will start taking care of something small for the future.
Microplastics Lurking in Cosmetics
Tiny plastic particles lurk not only in the packaging that wraps cosmetics, but also in the cosmetics themselves. In September last year, the EU announced a draft proposal for a future total ban on the use of “microplastic beads” in cosmetics. Looking at corporate initiatives, in Japan, has been converting its water-shedding products to plastic-free ones since 2018.
Microplastics and their effects on the human body
Where do all the microplastics we ingest through our daily diet go? A University of Amsterdam study found plastic particles in the blood samples of 17 out of 22 healthy adults. This suggests that microplastics may be transported through the blood to the organs. While the health implications remain unclear, concerns are growing louder and louder.
Clothing coating reduces emissions
A team of researchers from the University of Toronto has announced that coating clothing with silicon oil (PDMS) can reduce the amount of microplastics released during laundering. The coating reduces friction between garments and prevents fibers from breaking. The team is excited about the possibility of solving the microplastic problem while retaining the durability and quick-drying advantages of nylon and polyester products.
Avoid risk with vacuum cleaners
A study measuring microplastic concentrations in household air revealed that they are higher in households in low-income countries. This factor is related to the frequency of vacuuming. Although the relationship between microplastics and health hazards is still unclear, it seems possible to reduce the risk by changing one’s cleaning habits.