[Clean Water]

You’re Ingesting Plastic—Here’s How to Stop

By: Maria Minsker

Besides the harm plastic pollution does to our oceans and marine life, here’s another reason to decrease your plastic use that may hit even closer to home: you’re eating it. That’s right—people ingest an average of 70,000 pieces of microplastics each year. These tiny pieces of plastic make their way into the ocean, the food supply and even the air.

The volume of microplastics in the ocean can seem overwhelming, but know that progress is happening. Microbeads, the tiny plastic particles used as exfoliants in personal care products, used to get into the ocean through runoffs and are now largely banned in the United States. Activists are pushing for more efforts to decrease microplastic pollution, but in the meantime, check out three ways microplastic pollution gets into your body and what you can do to ease its harm on your health and the environment.

1. Microplastics in Seafood and Salt

One-third of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging produced annually is left to flow into the oceans, according to a study by the World Economic Forum. Though the most recognizable garbage tends to include items that the naked eye can see (i.e. plastic bags), microplastics are equally problematic, says Dune Ives, executive director of Lonely Whale, where she designs and leads ocean conservation initiatives.

When plastics aren’t recycled, they wind up in a landfill where they begin to decompose, which releases chemicals into the soil and water supply underground. It eventually exits as runoff, which then pours into the ocean.

When fish, shrimp, mussels and other sea creatures inadvertently consume the microplastics, these tiny particles end up on your table as seafood. Sea salt can carry microplastics as well—more than 600 microplastics in one kilogram. That means that when it’s processed for human consumption, it gets onto plates as well.

How to Help: To reduce the volume of microplastic in the ocean, recycle. “Any plastic item you send to the landfill could one day make its way back to the table, so take the right recycling measures with the garbage in your home,” Ives says. Also avoid styrofoam as much as possible—it’s made of polystyrene, which isn’t recyclable.

And, keep an eye out for specific opportunities to clean up the ocean from the Oceanic Preservation Society and Oceana. These organizations conduct research on the state of the ocean, organize volunteer efforts and educate the community on how to help.

2. Microplastics in Packaging

Cities around the country are banning plastic straws and grocery bags for good reason. They pollute the oceans after they’re thrown out, but what’s more, they’re actually causing you to ingest plastic while it’s still in your home, according to Dianna Cohen, co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition.

For example, researchers have found that single-use water bottles contain up to 241 microplastics per liter, which means you’re consuming them every time you take a sip. Similarly, plastic food packaging can release plasticizers (compounds added to plastic to make it retain a certain shape or feel) into its contents.

BPA (which makes plastic hard) and phtalates (which makes it soft) are two common plasticizers that are harmful for human consumption because they can, if present in large amounts, mimic the function of human hormones. When food is microwaved in a plastic container, BPA and phthalates may leak into food.

How to Help: To keep plasticizers out of your system, avoid microwaving food in any container that isn’t labeled “microwave safe.” The FDA established this safety standard, which tests for migrating chemicals. Better yet, skip the plastic altogether and opt for a glass or ceramic container. “The same goes for water bottles—drink tap water from your favorite cup or fill an eco-friendly water bottle to keep plastic out of your body and the landfill,” Cohen says.

3. Microplastics in Your Favorite Fleece

Synthetic fleece is warm and cozy, but you don’t want to eat it for dinner. The material is made from plastic fibers, and thousands of microscopic particles tear away from these fibers through regular wear and tear. Whenever you wash your fleece in the laundry machine, water runoff deposits the fibers into the ocean where fish consume them, Ives explains. Each wash of a fleece jacket can release up to 2 grams of microfibers!

Even more common than that, fleece particles end up in the air as dust just from wear. There’s no way to stop the process, so the only way to avoid microfiber pollution and consumption is to opt for natural fabrics like wool, cotton and linen.

How to Help: Wear and wash your fleece less often. “When you do have to wash it, use cold water and consider investing in a washing machine lint filter to keep the particles out of runoff,” Ives recommends.

For other ideas on how to help keep water clean, check out volunteer opportunities from the Waterkeeper Alliance on ThatHelps app!

Photo: David Clode