The invasion of microplastics

An alarming observation

A study published during the summer estimates that an American citizen whose diet meets dietary recommendations ingests between 39,000 and 52,000 particles of microplastic each year. These figures double when the particles present in the ambient air and taken in by inhalation are taken into account. For a person consuming bottled water exclusively, approximately 90,000 particles must be added to this figure annually. This amounts to well above 200,000 microplastics entering the human body year after year. 

The long-term effects of this kind of pollution are unknown due to the lack of available studies on this subject. There is reason to fear chemical toxicity, induction of an immune reaction or contamination by pathogenic micro-organisms attached to these particles. The finest particles (less than 130 microns in diameter) can potentially pass into human tissues and provoke a localised immune response.

However, in a report published on the 22nd of August, the WHO presented encouraging results on the human health consequences of microplastics in both tap and bottled water. At the same time, the institution underlines the weakness and limitations of the available studies.

In natural environments, pollution with microplastics is continuously increasing and is likely to become a significant threat to aquatic ecosystems – the WHO sees the inadequacy of wastewater treatment as one of the major causes of this problem. Furthermore, solid waste treatment is another significant concern. 359 million tonnes of plastic were produced in 2018, according to the European producers’ association PlasticEurope: an increase in volume of 3.2%. Around 40% of this production is destined for the packaging sector and a large proportion ends up in the ocean. It is estimated that 8 million tonnes of plastic were dumped into the sea in 2010.

There seems to be no way of escaping this invasion, not even by taking refuge in the most inaccessible mountain. A study published in April reveals that, on average, 249 fragments of microplastic are deposited daily on each square metre of an isolated area of the Regional Natural Park of the Ariège Pyrenees, at an altitude of 1,425 meters. This rate is comparable to the one observed in Paris or Dongguan in China, the only cities in which such studies have been conducted.

Researchers explain that particles are transported by air currents over distances of more than 95 km. The particles collected are composed of polystyrene (41%), polyethylene (32%) and polypropylene (18%). They come from the fragmentation of single-use plastic objects, packaging, plastic bags, and synthetic textiles. The Arctic is not spared, as two other worrying studies and show. Snow collected there contains up to 14,400 plastic particles per litre. In this case too, the wind is the vector of this ubiquitous pollution.

A legislative response

Therefore, it has become necessary to combat plastic pollution by reducing the production of disposable objects on the one hand and improving treatment and recycling on the other. In the absence of effective concrete measures, the entire food chain, including humans, will soon be contaminated.

In France, a first significant step has been taken with the law on energy transition, which put an end to plastic bags in July 2016 for checkout bags, and in January 2017 for fruit, vegetables, and other foodstuffs. Before this ban, as many as 5 billion single-use plastic bags were distributed at shop checkouts each year in France.

The energy transition law for green growth continues this trend away from disposable plastic. This law prohibits disposable plastic cups, glasses, and plates from the 1st of January 2020. Every year, 4.73 billion plastic cups are thrown away in France. Recycling is technically challenging because of the complex composition of the material used. As a result, only 1% of these cups are recycled.

Other national provisions apply to water bottles, swizzle sticks, straws and cotton buds. More recently, the European directive of June 2019 extends the list of prohibited products, and in particular, targets expanded polystyrene food containers. The reasoning is simple: the ten most common single-use plastic products on Europe’s beaches and seas, together with abandoned fishing gear, make up 70% of all marine waste. They are, therefore, the priority in our joint fight against plastic pollution.