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The Growing Threat of Microplastics A Closer Look at Plastic Pollution Plastic pollution has reached alarming levels worldwide, with an astonishing 430 million tonnes of plastic produced each year. Even more concerning is that two-thirds of this production consists of short-lived products that quickly become waste, finding their way into the oceans and eventually entering the human food chain. At this year's World Environment Day on 5 June, the spotlight was on the pressing issue of plastic pollution. Among the most harmful and enduring consequences of this crisis is the rise of microplastics, posing a growing threat to both human and planetary health.
Microplastics are minuscule particles of plastic found in everyday items such as cigarettes, clothing, and cosmetics. Research conducted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has revealed that the continuous use of these products contributes to the accumulation of microplastics in the environment. These tiny plastic particles, which can measure up to five millimetres in diameter, enter the ocean through the breakdown of marine plastic litter, plumbing runoff, production facility leaks, and other sources. When marine life, including birds, fish, mammals, and plants, ingest microplastics, they suffer both toxic and mechanical effects. These effects include reduced food intake, suffocation, behavioural changes, and genetic alterations.
Not only does the presence of microplastics affect the seafood we consume, but it also poses risks through inhalation, water ingestion, and skin absorption. Shockingly, microplastics have been discovered in various human organs and even in the placentas of newborn babies.
In 2021, UNEP's report titled "From Pollution to Solution" highlighted that microplastic chemicals are "associated with serious health impacts, especially in women." These impacts encompass changes to human genetics, brain development, respiration rates, and other health issues. Leticia Carvalho, Head of the Marine and Freshwater Branch at UNEP emphasized the importance of addressing the impacts of hazardous chemicals and microplastics. She stated, "Action limiting their spread and prevalence will undoubtedly be beneficial to our long-term health and the well-being of marine ecosystems and beyond."
Cigarette filters, composed mainly of microplastics known as cellulose acetate fibres, are a significant contributor to the microplastic problem. With approximately six trillion cigarettes consumed by one billion smokers annually, these fibres are found in every corner of the world. Cigarette butts are the most prevalent plastic litter found on beaches, making marine ecosystems highly vulnerable to microplastic leakage. When cigarettes break down, they release microplastics, heavy metals, and other chemicals that adversely impact ecosystem health and services.
Clothing and textiles also play a substantial role in microplastic pollution. Plastics like polyester, acrylic, and nylon comprise around 60% of all clothing materials. Through abrasion, clothing made from these materials sheds microplastics, known as microfibers, during washing or wearing. According to a 2020 UNEP report, approximately 9% of annual microplastic losses to the ocean come from clothes and other textiles. To reduce these losses, experts recommend wearing clothes multiple times before washing them and reducing the frequency of washing. When purchasing new clothing items, opting for sustainably sourced natural materials can help decrease or eliminate the risk of microplastic leakage, although this may entail other environmental trade-offs.
Looking ahead, UNEP and other UN agencies participating in the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion will continue to drive coordinated action within the industry. They will advocate for government intervention in transitioning towards a sustainable, circular textile value chain with minimal microplastics. UNEP is currently developing a roadmap that outlines key actions stakeholders can take and provides guidance for effective communication strategies to drive behavioural change. The issue of microplastics demands urgent attention and concerted efforts from individuals, industries, and governments alike. Only through proactive measures can we mitigate the far-reaching impacts of plastic pollution on our health and the well-being of our ecosystems.