Microplastics in everyday life
The sessional examinations were over. The three of us decided to enjoy the evening with a gala dinner. As we were too tired to go to a city restaurant, the dinner was planned to be in Radhika’s room, in the hostel itself. We got some mouth-watering stuff from “The Dolphin”, a place well-known for its sea food. The items arrived, all neatly packed in plastic containers. As we began opening the containers, I said, “Hey! Look at the amount of plastic. It may not be possible for us to avoid plastics even though we all know that these are environmental and health hazards.” Radhika said, “Jeanne, a few years back, the status of development of a country was measured in terms of per capita usage of plastics; something similar to energy consumption.” Ayushi added, “That is old story. Now it’s all about plastic pollution. Do you remember the picture of the sea turtle choked with plastics?” “Yeah” I replied, “but it will be a good while before we find a balanced way of using and disposing off plastics”.
Plastics are harmful to the environment, but approximately 400 million tons are produced each year. They are needed for everyday life. Of these, 3 million microplastics are released into the environment. Microplastics are tiny plastic particles, less than 5 mm in size. For all practical purposes, plastics less than 200 microns are considered hazardous for health. These are of 2 types – primary & secondary; the former is designed for commercial purposes and the latter is a consequence of weathering and gradual degradation of plastic materials on exposure to ultraviolet light and ocean waves. Synthetic clothing, nylon in various forms, tyres, tea-bags, plastic containers, colour pens & pencils, detergents , tooth-pastes, lipsticks, shower gels and shampoos, nail-polish and sun-screens and sundry other items contribute to the global accumulation of micro-plastics. A good number of food-products are also packaged in plastics.
Why the current hue and cry?
Microplastics release toxic materials into the environment, which can affect both aquatic and terrestrial organisms. They also act as carriers for other toxic materials like DDT. A large quantity is in the oceans, polluting the water and organisms in the sea. Microplastics enter the human body through ingestion, inhalation and skin contact. They can adversely affect the health of a person by damaging certain cells causing inflammatory and immune reactions and certain types of allergic responses. Metabolic disturbances, neurotoxicity and carcinogenic effects have been observed in experimental animals. Fortunately as on-today, the common man is neither consuming nor inhaling a large quantity of micro-plastics. However, people working in certain industrial settings are exposed to a great risk of plastic pollution. The time has arrived for us to take concrete steps to minimize the health hazards of microplastics.
What can be done?
The principle of refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle is most applicable here. However, microplastics are an essential material needed for everyday life. There is an urgent need for the development of environment friendly plastic substitutes, and extensive research is ongoing in this area on the global front. Proper disposal of plastics is also an effective way of reducing pollution. There are standard procedures for disposal, with each country and even each municipality following its own method. Every household should strictly follow the given instructions. Developing nations are still struggling with these challenges. Researchers are also working on the break-down of plastics into eco-friendly products using various biological processes such as bacterial action and enzymatic activity. Biodegradable plastics are mechanically strong and cost-effective. Of course, it will be a long while before this research translates into tangible benefits to our society. Meanwhile, awareness of the various issues related to plastics is important. Simple measures like avoiding plastic bags, bottles, containers and packaging, and using cloth bags, plastic-free cosmetics, organic clothes instead of synthetic materials etc. would go a long way in ameliorating the situation, provided they are implemented by each of us. After all, every drop counts – and it’s these little drops of water that make the mighty ocean.