• Microplastics have been found in remote places, plants and even in humans
  • Scientists are working to determine the impacts of microplastics on humans
  • Microplastics can come from clothes, too
  • The microplastics problem demands immediate attention: Researcher Rodolfo Romarate II

In an era where catchy buzzwords come and go, the term "microplastics" has emerged as a powerful reminder of a persisting crisis, one that demands our unwavering attention. It serves as a stark reminder of the profound repercussions that arise from our intricate association with plastic.

The global predicament of plastic pollution is no secret to the masses. Plastic, undoubtedly, offers unparalleled convenience and boasts extensive applications. However, a significant portion of the plastics we employ ultimately finds its way into landfills, leaving an indelible stain on our precious planet.

"In the early 2000s, the amount of plastic waste we generated rose more in a single decade than it had in the previous 40 years," noted the U.N. Environment Program. "Today, we produce about 400 tons of plastic waste every year."

Plastic waste is notoriously known for not decomposing, or taking even hundreds of years to do so. But even then, plastic "never fully disappears," as they only break down into smaller and smaller pieces.

This is where microplastics come in.

Microplastics are everywhere

Plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters are commonly referred to as microplastics. These minuscule fragments originate from a multitude of sources, ranging from microbeads found in toothpastes and facial scrubs to larger plastic items that have gradually disintegrated over time.

It was during the 1970s that reports initially surfaced about the existence of minuscule plastic fragments within our vast oceans. However, this disconcerting revelation failed to capture significant attention for a considerable duration. It wasn't until 2004 when pioneering researchers introduced the term "microplastics," that the world's gaze finally shifted toward this previously neglected facet of the plastic conundrum.

Since then, scientists have been working to determine the extent of microplastics' proliferation, and have found some worrying results. These tiny plastic pieces have been found trapped in plant leaves, in fresh snow even in Antarctica, and, worryingly, even in human blood, kidneys and spleen. Microplastics have even also been detected in the human placenta.

People, researchers say, may be exposed to thousands of airborne microplastics each year.

It's all around us

In a recent study, which was published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research, researchers from the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology in the Philippines confirmed the presence of microplastics in the air in Metro Manila.

The team reportedly collected air samples from the general height of an average person and found suspended atmospheric microplastics in all of the 17 sampling areas they surveyed.

This could mean that everyday people — from commuters and street sweepers to bystanders and traffic personnel — may be exposed to such microplastics without even knowing it.

And the breakthrough study was even conducted during the COVID-19-related lockdowns when the mobility around the metro was significantly reduced, Rodolfo Romarate II of Mindanao State University - Iligan Institute of Technology, one of the study authors, told International Business Times in an email. So, it's quite likely that the microplastic concentration in the air would now be higher with movements returning to pre-pandemic levels.

The study in Metro Manila, in a way, provides valuable insight as to the extent of the plastic and microplastic issue. In 2021, a survey found that the Philippines was among the top 10 countries that release the most plastic into the ocean.

It's possible that there could be a relationship between the Philippines' ranking in terms of plastic pollution and the team's findings of airborne microplastics in the Metro, explained Romarate. However, a "more detailed study" would be needed to look at a potential correlation, he added.

"The atmosphere is regarded as one of the major highways of microplastic pollution to different ecosystems (marine, freshwater, soil, etc.)," Romarate explained. "With higher plastic pollution, it can be inferred that microplastics in the air are also higher."

The impacts of microplastics remain enigmatic

Naturally, there is the question of just how microplastics may affect the world at large, from the environment to, of course, people's health. However, as a relatively newer topic of research, the answers are still quite unclear.

"There are very few studies that have been done focusing on the effects of microplastics on animals and plants that have concluded that they have damaging effects. Unfortunately, these studies on the effects of plastics are not focused on higher vertebrate homologs, to infer their effects on humans," said Romarate. "I think scientists are now racing to study the effects of microplastics on humans."

The concerns are understandable. The idea of the mere presence of a foreign item — plastic, no less — inside the human body is already concerning. But the fact that such microplastics can actually be carriers of pathogens makes the race to an answer a much more urgent task.

And with the world's continuing close relationship with plastics, time may not be on our side.

Re-thinking plastics

The ramifications stemming from our dependence on plastic extend far beyond what meets the eye. From the staggering carbon emissions associated with its production to the profound devastation inflicted upon wildlife, the consequences are manifold. Compounding this issue is the alarming reality that a significant portion of plastics, despite efforts, find their ultimate destination in landfills, perpetuating a cycle of accumulation as our reliance on them persists.

As studies delve deeper into the realm of microplastics, an unsettling truth emerges—our lives have become inextricably intertwined with plastic, to an extent where we unwittingly inhale and ingest these tiny particles through our everyday activities and common objects. This revelation raises a pressing query: How distant must we tread on our journey toward liberating ourselves from the clutches of plastic?

Encouragingly, a collective wave of change is sweeping through society as we strive to emancipate ourselves from the clutches of plastic. Increasingly, individuals are conscientiously adopting mindful practices in their daily lives, opting for eco-friendly alternatives that reflect their commitment to a sustainable future. Simple yet impactful choices, such as forgoing plastic straws and embracing reusable bags or tumblers, have become emblematic of this growing consciousness.

Undoubtedly, the collective adoption of impactful measures holds the key to long-term transformation, enabling us to forge a path toward a more sustainable future by reducing our reliance on plastic. However, when we confront the issue of microplastics, a deeper paradigm shift in our perception of plastics may be required.

Plastic isn't just "bags and bottles"

The Metro Manila study shed light on the composition of microplastics, revealing a significant presence of fibrous particles within the collected samples. These findings underscore the complexity of microplastic pollution, highlighting the diverse forms it assumes in highly populated urban environments.

In parallel, researchers exploring the "pristine and remote" realms of Antarctica made a startling discovery. Among the microplastics identified in these untainted locations, PET, a polymer commonly used in the production of bottles and clothing, emerged as the prevailing type.

Polyester (a synthetic fiber) and acrylic-based clothing are reportedly responsible for some 35% of the microplastics that get into the environment.

Together, these highlight how even the clothes that we wear may be contributing to the problem, even though they are likely not the first things that come to mind when one thinks of microplastic sources.

"I think the best way to control plastic pollution is to start by changing how people see plastic," said Romarate. "People should understand that plastic pollution is not just about plastic bags and bottles; there are so many types of plastic, including our t-shirts, which are mainly made of polyester (a plastic polymer)... Hence, we need to be more mindful when buying clothes."

But "the world is waking up to the problem," according to the UN Environment Program.

People's efforts, companies, governments and industries together can make a change through efforts like bans, recycling and innovation.

In 2022, for instance, the EU made efforts to push sustainable fashion, supporting textiles to be made out of recycled fibers and reducing also the amount of microplastics in them.

People are willing to make a change

Despite researchers' massive efforts to shed light on microplastics, awareness about it appears to remain rather dismal.

In a 2020 study, for instance, only 26% of survey respondents had heard of microplastics. A 2022 study on more than 2,700 Norwegians similarly found that awareness about the sources of microplastics appeared to be low, and only a few mentioned potential ways to solve the problem.

But, there is a silver lining to these findings.

When the participants of the 2020 study learned of its potential impacts on human health, 75% expressed concern about it. Importantly, more knowledge of microplastics also corresponded to a "stronger" willingness to act on it.

The 2022 study also revealed that people thought of microplastics as something "something bad that might pollute the ocean and harm animal species."

Such studies show how important it is for people to be aware of the issue. Although there are still wide knowledge gaps that need to be filled, particularly about its potential impacts, it seems that people are generally willing to make the necessary changes.

"The global problem of plastic pollution remains unaddressed, and we are now faced with an even more concerning issue of microplastics," said Romarate. "These tiny microplastics pose a greater threat than their larger plastics and this is also demanding immediate action."

It may not be easy, especially in places where the relationship with plastic is still tightly ingrained in everyday life — places where plastic remains to be the practical and, unfortunately, the only affordable choice.

But people's willingness and individual choices are providing strong roots for the movement. The ball is also in the court of the big players — governments, companies, and industry — whose will and efforts could just help us to gain serious ground in the fight for our planet and health.

A volunteer of the NGO 'Canarias Libre de Plasticos' (Canary Islands free of plastics) carries out a collection of microplastics and mesoplastic debris to clean the Almaciga Beach, on the north coast of the Canary Island of Tenerife, on July 14, 2018.
A volunteer of the NGO 'Canarias Libre de Plasticos' (Canary Islands free of plastics) carries out a collection of microplastics and mesoplastic debris to clean the Almaciga Beach, on the north coast of the Canary Island of Tenerife, on July 14, 2018. AFP / DESIREE MARTIN