It’s hard to deny that plastic is everywhere–just look around the room. Here I write pounding on my plastic keys, sipping from my coffee thermos adorned with imitation metal designs, nestled in my fleece (or rather polyethylene terephthalate) blanket, blasting Duke Evers through my synthetic earbuds.
Plastic is unavoidable. I would even go so far to claim that our culture is addicted to the stuff. But why, at least in terms of single-use plastic, are we obsessed? Plastic is wonderful because it’s…
- Cheap to manufacture
- Wear, temperature, and impact resistant
- Has great insulation properties
But, in turn, it is also horrible for these very same reasons. Plastic is a problem. If you don’t believe me by now, check out some really cool and disturbing facts about how we’re exploiting the resource.
Tugging on Our Heartstrings
But what gets us going and why should we care? In short, we care because of our guilt and our love for little flagship critters. Don’t get me wrong, some may care about ecological balance, health of fisheries and seafood industry, and persistent organic pollution accumulation across tropic levels–but lets be real–we’re triggered by images like these:
So you’ve probably seen these heart-wrenching photos before–the fishnet seal, the turtle with a six pack around its deformed shell, or a seabird caught up in a plastic bag mess. This is horrible and all, but what if I told you there was a better reason to care?
As of late, the buzz has been about what happens when that seal’s fishnet infinity scarf trend breaks down into itty-bitty pieces. Then, my friends, we get microplastic.
What the Heck is Microplastic?
Virtually every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some shape or form (with the exception of the small amount that has been incinerated). But much of it is unseen because it’s too small to be detected by the naked eye.
Lets take NOAA’s technical definition. Microplastic is:
extremely small pieces of plastic debris in the environment resulting from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste”
They can also be manufactured to be that small–I’m looking at you, toothpaste and face wash.
You may be asking yourselves, “But why should I care? These guys are tiny and they won’t hurt any of my seal friends.” Well, there are a few different reasons that can be explained to you in various essays– but I’ll just explain in a few letters: POPs, or persistent organic pollutants.
When this plastic breaks down into tiny pieces, naked to the human eye, it acts as a perfect sponge, accumulating these high amounts of POPs. Captain Charles Moore, aka the God of microplastics, describes these plastic fragments as “poison pills” when combined with POPs.
When fish, mussels, jellyfish, phytoplankton and other maybe-not-so-cute-but-ecologically-important organisms eat these plastics mistaking them for food or hidden in the water, they are not just getting a belly full of plastic, but additionally, high doses of of flavorful chemicals.
But maybe you’re saying. “Oh no, that’s not me. I don’t use single-use plastic bags and I recycle everything.” It’s great to cut down on your plastic consumption, and even better to be mindful about where it ends up when it’s “disposed of,” but there are a lot of ways that plastic can turn into these “poison pills” that we don’t think about.
Take my fleece blanket, for example. It’s not as “in your face plastic” as a single-use bag or bottle; but yes, it is just as much plastic. In fact, I don’t even need to “dispose” of it to get plastic fragments into the ocean. All I need to do is throw it in the wash.
It was recently found that laundering a single fleece, a clothing article way smaller than my blanket, can shed over 250,000 plastic fibers. And get this, wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to filter these particles out.
Washing fleece is a huge source of these potential “poison pills.” For just Patagonia jackets each year, “the amount of fibers being released into public waterways is equivalent to the amount of plastic in up to 11,900 grocery bags.”
Plastic, Plastic, Everywhere
Over the last ten years we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the last century. But at what cost? How far are we willing to go until we realize that it’s too late and our petroleum resource is exploited?
These microplastics are just one chunk of this full-blown problem.