An Expert Debunks The Most Common Myths About Microplastics
Bethanie Carney Almroth is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Gothenburg in Western Sweden. An expert in marine science and environmental health, she received her Ph.D. in ecotoxicology—the study of how chemicals affect the environment—and has spent the last seven years studying microplastics in aquatic environments.
It’s an interesting time to be in this line of work. Recently, it feels like microplastics—teeny tiny plastics that are either created to be small, like those pesky microbeads in beauty products1, or have deteriorated from larger pieces of plastic over time—are becoming public enemy No. 1 in the environmental space.
It could be because of disturbing photos like this, which prove that fish often mistake small pieces of plastic for food. Or maybe it's due to the fact that man-made microplastics have been found in literally every natural landscape on earth—from the deepest trenches in the ocean to the snow falling over the Arctic. Or perhaps it's because we humans now know that these small beads of plastic are making their way into our stomachs too. (One infamous study suggested that we could be eating a credit card's worth of them every week.)
Whatever the reason, public interest in microplastics has soared according to Almroth, and Google search data agrees with her. "With plastic, there's been a lot of movement from every level," she says. "And it's interesting to see because the science isn't always there… We don't know what they're actually doing in the environment. That’s the opposite of what we’re seeing in other cases, like with chemicals where you have thousands of scientific articles and decades of research but no movement.”
Almroth says that the research we have on the toxicity of microplastics—especially when compared to things like industrial chemicals—is scant. Here, she breaks down what we do know, what we don't know, and what we need to figure out when it comes to microplastics in the environment.
How do microplastics affect fish? Well, it's complicated.
First off, it's important to remember that there are many, many types of plastics out there, each constructed using different chemicals (Almroth and her team have identified nearly 4,000 different chemicals2 in plastic packaging alone), so it's difficult to study exactly how all of them are affecting our environment. That being said, fish do seem to be eating plastics of all sorts.
"We can find plastic in the guts of animals," Almroth says, adding that the impact of these plastics is harder to identify. Most recently, her lab studied how microplastics affected the gut of rainbow trout3 in particular and found that they were relatively benign. This makes her suspect that reactions to microplastics are species-dependent, and fish that live in sediment-rich environments, like rainbow trout, have evolved to become better at filtering out toxins or handling exposure to particles. After consuming microplastics, certain fish may also lose their appetite for other foods, while others could experience hormone disruption. Bottom line: Fish are eating microplastics, but a lot more research needs to be done to figure out how exactly they're processing them.
The impact of microplastics on human health—and some thoughts on that credit card study.
There's concern that all these microplastics end up in our stomachs when we eat fish, but Almroth finds some flaws in that logic: We gut fish before serving them, in much of the Western world at least, which could help us avoid a fair amount of the microplastics that have accumulated.
"You're eating plastics, but it's not necessarily through the marine food chain… We probably breathe more plastics than we eat," she argues. Yep, thanks to wind and water cycles, the simple act of breathing can expose us to microplastics—which is concerning since our lungs aren't as adept at filtering out toxins as our stomachs are.
Well, that's terrifying. The semi-good news is that we're probably not eating or breathing a credit card's worth of microplastic every week, as that one study theorized. "I think there's a problem with those numbers. When you're making that kind of calculation you have to make a lot of assumptions," Almroth says, explaining that the microparticles studied were found in the ocean. Aquatic particles tend to be larger than the ones we'd realistically be ingesting on a day-to-day basis.
As with fish, we still don't really know how microplastics affect humans in the long run. While the most recent report from the World Health Organization concludes that there's not enough evidence to show that the microplastics in drinking water are harmful to our health, for example, a lot more research still needs to be done.
The scariest part: How microplastics are changing our environment as a whole.
"We're finding microplastic everywhere. That in and of itself is problematic," Almroth says. "There's literally no clean environment left on the whole planet." While microplastics exist everywhere, freshwater ecosystems that are fed with sewage, like the ones outside urban areas, are hotspots for them.
The most disturbing part of all is that we've been pumping plastics into the environment for at least 50 years—and all of them are still out there. The ones that we can't see have just settled to the ocean floor. "There are some studies indicating that 1% of ocean plastics are in the surface water, so it's a really small number. The sediment is the ultimate sink—that's where everything will end up." Think about that! The giant garbage patches accumulating in our oceans—one measured to be roughly four times the size of California—show only 1% of the plastics floating in our oceans. And unlike surface trash, which can maybe, eventually be cleaned up, Almroth thinks that they're going to be there forever.
If we can't clean these microplastics up, what CAN we do?
This massive problem will take equally epic solutions—and cutting back on the amount of plastic we send to the ocean will require action from consumers, businesses, and governments. The U.K. and Canada recently pledged to ban certain categories of single-use plastics, while brands like IKEA, G7, Athleta, Reformation, and Adidas are beginning to popularize products made out of recovered fishing nets. This is a good start, considering these nets would have eventually become a huge source of aquatic microplastics, but a lot more still needs to be done.
Put simply, we need to decrease our dependency on plastic, but we can't stop there. As a society, we need to place more value on our stuff. "Instead of just replacing things, reuse things," Almroth recommends. "Instead of saying 'Instead of using a plastic fork I'm going to use a bamboo fork and throw that away'—stop playing into the throwaway culture."
It's easier said than done, but you can start by buying clothes made to last, avoiding single-use packaging, and investing in furniture you'll have for a lifetime.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.