The arrival of hundreds of plastic pellets on the Galician coast is just the tip of the iceberg of what the sea hides. According to data from the European Commission, about 160,000 tons of these small polymers are lost to the environment each year. In fact, landfilling is considered one of the largest sources of pollution since pellets are the raw material with which 98% of plastic is created.
Nevertheless, is not the only one. Microplastics (one of the smallest versions of polymers since they measure between 1 and a thousand microns) are everywhere; They have been detected in uninhabited and remote areas, such as Antarctica or the top of the Himalayas, and are present in the air and in food.
A few days ago, a study by a group of researchers from the universities of Chicago and Rutgers (USA) was made public which states that on average per liter of water there are 240,000 nanoplastic particles (from 1 to 1,000 nm). Three brands have been analyzed, they do not say which ones, but they estimate that similar concentrations of nanoplastics are found in all bottled waters.
Talking about micro and nano scale means talking about degradation. Any plastic waste, such as a bag or container, that ends up in the natural environment ends up becoming first micro and then nano plastic, lasting in the environment for hundreds of years. The problem with nanos is that they are so small that until now it has been impossible to study their presence, even though they are as tiny as they are dangerous.
This same week, the Institute of Environmental Diagnosis and Water Studies (IDAEA) of the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) in collaboration with the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (IS Global) published a study in which they affirm several things. The first is to have found a methodology to study the presence of these nanoparticles (the American study already mentioned also talks about a new method) and, the second, their presence in bottled water. «Considering that an adult drinks two liters of water a day, we estimate an intake of 262 micrograms of plastic particles per year. In tap water we found more polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), while in bottled water we detected mostly polypropylene terephthalate (PET), although also polyethylene. “28 plastic additives have also been detected, chemical compounds that give greater resistance, hardness or flexibility,” say the researchers.
The truth is that there is growing concern about the impact that both micro and nanoplastics have on human health (not to mention other species). Remains have been found in urine and in different tissues, from the intestine to the lungs or the reproductive system. «When the material is already nano-sized, it can reach the interior of the cells. Microplastics can be expelled when they reach the body, but nanoplastics can penetrate the intestinal epithelium and reach the blood. Substances such as PET are inert, but have associated additives. In general, 4% of its weight are additives that, in principle, are authorized because they are safe. However, we are including them in our body and in the long run… we have to be careful,” says Roberto Rosal, from the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the University of Alcalá de Henares.
Substances such as phthalates or phenols “are endocrine disruptors and affect several systems. Epidemiological studies have shown an association between phthalate exposure and adverse reproductive outcomes in women and men, diabetes and insulin resistance, overweight, allergy and asthma. In vitro they have identified multiple biological effects; from the inflammatory response to carcinogenicity or neurotoxicity. In vivo studies in rodents have shown that they can present adverse effects such as alteration of the intestinal microbiome, liver toxicity, oxidative stress,” says IS Global.
A few years ago, the Rezero Foundation carried out a study called “Plastic Health” in which they concluded that people’s urine contains about 20 chemicals associated with plastic. «We study, above all, phthalates and phenols, which are used to improve the qualities of plastic. Phthalates give them more flexibility and phenols give them resistance. These products are found in many food packaging and migrate into what we eat. They are also found in other products such as cosmetics, detergents, toys… This issue of association and accumulation with other substances has to be taken into account; “The combination can affect health and, however, when they are studied, they are analyzed one by one as individual substances,” explains Marta Beltrán, project director of the Foundation.
The European Parliament wants to reduce plastic packaging by up to 20% in 2040 and has been putting a stop to different products such as microplastics in exfoliating creams or straws for a few years now. However, “there are measures, but they are not enough. For example, bisphenol A has been banned from food packaging, but apart from the law there must be monitoring. Furthermore, at a global level, the prohibition of a substance is insufficient. Bisphenol A belongs to a group that should be banned entirely to be replaced by other substances that also have health consequences. Furthermore, regulations are as important as industries following the instructions and not putting things on the market that are harmful. For its part, the population can reduce consumption or avoid exposure to additives, for example, by not heating food in plastic containers when it is known that heat makes it easier for substances to migrate into food,” says Beltrán.
Recycling also has a limit: «Plastics have a particular life cycle and cannot be recycled infinitely, because the molecules degrade. Then there are objects that are recycled very poorly, such as plastic bags and, in general, those made with composite materials. The use of monomaterials can help recycling. I think it is not about demonizing plastic, which has great subtleties, for example, in the hospital sector, but we should improve separation and prevent what is used from becoming uncontrolled waste,” says Rosal.
Finally, is it possible to eliminate what is already accumulating in the environment? Well, this is what some research is trying to solve, using bacteria, enzymes, etc., to make plastic disappear. In the case of the University of British Columbia (Canada) and Sichuan University (China) they have created a technique that can filter microplastics from drinking water and that uses fruit and wood compounds. The University of Portsmouth and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the US Department of Energy, for their part, have designed one that can digest some plastics.
An increasing production
Plastic is ubiquitous and part of our daily lives. About 430 million tons of this material are manufactured every year. And in the next 20 years its production is expected to double. And it is estimated that more than 30 million tons end up in the environment every year.
Plastic waste is considered one of the great environmental challenges of the 21st century, because, in addition, at an economic level it involves costs worth between 300,000 and 600,000 million dollars in damage to ecosystems and human health. For this reason, the UN is working on negotiating an international agreement, similar to the one in Paris that focuses on Greenhouse Gas emissions, but for plastic. It will be legally binding and is expected to be ready by the end of this year.