By Emily Hsiang, Student at Haverford College
From yogurt containers we toss in the trash, to chip bags littered on the side of the road, we are constantly throwing away plastic materials. Our waste management systems give the gift of ignorant bliss, creating the sense that trash magically disappears once you place it out on the street curb. In truth, however, plastic wears down into tiny fragments called “microplastics” over time, and these remains live on through the winds and the ocean…in other words, the water bottle you threw away in high school may be out there still.
In particular, it’s important to understand the little-known process through which wind and ocean currents blow these plastic fragments around the world, allowing them to endlessly circulate. The transfer of microplastics is an increasingly pressing issue with each year, as these toxic bits pervade our air, our bodies, our plants, and more. In relatively recent years, scientists have only just realized the gravity of understanding how microplastics are transferred by wind and water; these patterns help us understand where plastic accumulates, and how this might be harmful in the long-term.
First, to more thoroughly understand how microplastics form, it is important to know that plastic is very difficult to decompose, given its relatively impenetrable structure. Like all materials in nature, plastic is eventually worn down, but very few bacteria can break down the pieces. It is only via an extremely long, slow process involving UV light from the sun that plastic may decompose.
In effect, nearly-invisible plastic fragments have been tracked to thousands of locations around the world, all because of atmospheric circulation. In other words, wind and water currents carry microplastics around the globe, as these particles function like any other type of dust, sand, or sediment. As expected, microplastics are heavily concentrated in largely-populated areas, including the U.S., which may be attributed to the widespread use and disposal of plastic products overall. The spread of microplastics is furthered by the heavy use of vehicles in these largely-populated places, as tires crush the plastic, then drag them along the roads or send them into the air with their exhaust. Also, in the ocean, accumulation of microplastics is higher along coastal areas, as plastic is discarded by the humans on land, then dragged down into the ocean.
While microplastic accumulation in high populated areas is very intuitive, scientists were perplexed to also find these plastic remains in relatively isolated places, far from human activity. This is explained by newly-discovered evidence that finds microplastics can remain air-borne up to six and a half days, long enough to travel across an ocean or a continent. Evidently, the extremely miniscule size of microplastics contributes to their transportability, thus they are more easily carried by winds and ocean.
For this reason, microplastics have been found almost everywhere, from the soil to the human bloodstream. Notably, bits of plastic can leak into the food of almost any animal regardless of whether they are on the land or in the sea. While the effects of plastic inhalation are still widely unknown, the toxicity of plastic is known to damage the lungs and facilitate diseases. To mitigate the harmful potential of this issue, professionals recommend better waste management.
Generally speaking, it is always good to reduce waste when you can. There are plenty of reusable alternatives to your usual single-use products, such as reusable razors, masks, shopping bags, or straws. There are also plenty of non-plastic alternatives to products typically made from plastic, like this plastic-free toilet paper or these biodegradable plastic cups. Also, when it’s possible, you can donate items instead of throwing them out, including clothes, toys, books, kitchen tools, etc., or even shop at second-hand stores yourself. This article from 34th Street and this article from Billy Penn list the best places to thrift in Philly!
If you have to dispose of something, make sure you know what is recyclable to prevent unnecessary waste. As a good reminder, recycling guides like this one from Philadelphia Streets outline which products can be recycled, including newspapers or emptied bottles and cans, and which products are better left out, including light bulbs or greasy takeout containers. These slight changes to your day will only take a few extra seconds of thought, but will make a huge impact on our environment and our wellbeing!