Written by Danielle Suguitan and Christine Nobleza
Illustrated by Gio Paloma
With the dawn of the new century comes the ushering of new technologies designed to revolutionize our lifestyle. One such invention is microplastics—tiny plastic particles smaller than 5 mm in size, which originate from primary (polyethylene) and secondary sources (as residue from other plastics).1
Often found in different colors and sizes, these beads are used in many everyday items such as cosmetics, detergents, and napkins for their abrasive quality and ability to absorb liquid. Microplastics are from plastic and styrofoam degradation which leaves invisible residue. Despite its ingenuity, however, little is known about its long-standing effects on the environment and ecology. Present-day research studies suggest that its consequences far outweigh its benefits.
Invisible but ever present
Despite their minute size, microplastics pose significant effects for the environment, animals, and humans.
“Plastics that pollute the environment are naturally torn down by physical processes until they are very small and not easily detectable by the human eye, but these fragments are never completely degraded. Instead, they accumulate in water and soil and have become integrated into food webs through bioaccumulation.” says Dr. Ronald Cruz, a marine biologist and professor at the Ateneo de Manila University.
Plastic is a potential biohazard that was born from the “catastrophic effects” stemming from industrial revolutions. As a contaminant, pollution caused by microplastics is present in land, water, and air. It is highly brittle in the face of UV radiation, mobile, and effortlessly transported by the wind or waves; microplastics can easily break down into smaller and smaller pieces until they become invisible to the naked eye. Coupled with the fact that they take 20 to 200 years to decompose fully, it is no surprise these pollutants have become a part of our environment.2
In addition, microplastics alter soil concentrations by increasing pH levels thereby decreasing microbial activities needed for the growth, development, and survival of plants.3 Because of this, invisible plastics can disrupt the natural environment by out-competing pure organic matter.
As hard as it is to believe, we are exposed to millions of plastic particles. Microplastics are found in nearly every environment, both terrestrial and aquatic, they are far more prominent in the latter where all marine species are subject to some kind of exposure. As Cruz explains: “Ocean currents carry microplastics, and gyres concentrate them. For example, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a concentration of plastics within the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.”
Because of how microscopic these particles are, they take up the necessary space for zooplankton, the basis of marine food webs.4 These microplastics are often ingested by fish species and are absorbed into their internal tissues, causing organ damage. Since these particles hardly remain stationary, marine animals have been found to have regular interactions with microplastics which lead them to undergo premature death. This causes an imbalance of in the overall structure of marine food webs.5
With both the environment and animals greatly affected, the way we live our lives comes into question. Plastics are a man-made novelty—celebrated as a feat of human genius. However, this “genius invention” may serve to be our very own undoing.
In a groundbreaking study about microplastics and human health, it was found that plastics can now be found inside our bloodstream: polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polystyrene (PS); compounds found in disposable water bottles, styrofoam, and plastic packaging.6 Not only that but, small plastic fibers can also be absorbed into our bodies.7 Little is known about the potential health effects this may have on humans, but it does not change the fact that we are regularly subjected to an alarming amount of plastic.
The last frontier
With the rising amount of microplastics in the ocean, there is increasing concern over the protection of marine habitats. Islands closer to water are at a greater risk of plastic contamination—this much is clear with microplastics found in water sources and dams. The Philippines is often referred to as the last frontier because of the high biodiversity found in our waters. Multiple river banks of Manila Bay have begun to house more plastic particles than fish seen in plastic found in five river mouths,8 showing just how easy it is for plastic debris to travel between bodies of water.
The DOST has already issued a warning regarding the growing threat of microplastics to our natural habitats—as it was recently discovered that microplastic sediments were found in various fishes and corals in Northern Mindanao, specifically on the shores of Lanao del Sur and Surigao.9 Several responses have been made to combat the plastic problem in the Philippines such as small-scale beach clean-ups.
However, just as Cruz points out, these are short-term solutions to a bigger problem. Thus, the only effective solution to the issues posed by microplastics is one found in biotechnology and nanotechnology.
“Since microplastics pollute the environment, negatively affect marine animals, and potentially harm humans, then it might be a One Health problem that requires One Health solutions,” remarks Cruz, “By that time, we will probably have bioremediation solutions like genetically engineered microorganisms that can digest plastics. But hopefully, plastic use will have significantly been reduced by then.”
In light of issues posed by microplastics, its ecological relation can be found in the disruption of environmental processes. As indicated in the One Health principle, wherein the spheres of the environment, human health, and animal health all intersect in determining the overall conditions of life, interventions for detrimental practices should be put into place.
“Holistic approaches require the synergy of efforts from environmental, fisheries, ecological, and health experts.” Cruz emphasizes.
What happens now?
At present, the state of our world is drastically altered by anthropogenic factors, an even greater effort should be given to address environmental issues that impact communities. With the rise of misinformation in the environmental field, the problem of microplastics is deemed more challenging as the prevalence of unreliable information generates inaccurate and widespread notions on the matter.
In this regard, there is a need for collective action in closing this gap of misinformation and establishing a greater system for managing microplastics. With the collective effort of the community, as well as governmental participation and intervention, this problem can be resolved by establishing effective systems for managing plastic pollution.
More awareness would be incited in other prevalent environmental issues that are continuously influenced by the technological endeavors of humans—it has and will continue to pose ethical issues regarding our advancement versus the diversity of life.
Therefore, technological development is arbitrary in the sense that modernization has been built on the foundation of progression—guiding man through various ages of development and enabling advanced technologies—but remains detrimental to the state of the environment. As various ecosystems are depleted in the process of modernization, this deems such technological advancements redundant as it is at the expense of irredeemable resources.
“If the technological mindset is not balanced with an ecological one, we will stand to lose more and more of our connection with nature and become less concerned about its well-being, which will ultimately be disastrous for us,” Cruz notes when imagining the generations left behind with our plastic wastes.
With the increasing demand for profit and globalization, modernization has become more rapid and widespread. Technological advancement, while responsible for more lives saved and convenience becoming a norm, serves more as a double-edged sword rather than a tool made for our own benefit.
Bhuyan MdS. 2022. Effects of Microplastics on Fish and in Human Health. Frontiers in Environmental Science. 10. doi:https://doi.org/10.3389/fenvs.2022.827289.
Lim X. 2021. Microplastics are everywhere — but are they harmful? Nature. 593(7857):22–25. doi:https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-01143-3. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01143-3.
Osborne M. 2022 Mar 28. Microplastics Detected in Human Blood in New Study. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/microplastics-detected-in-human-blood-180979826/.
Osorio ED, Tanchuling MAN, Diola MaBLD. 2021. Microplastics Occurrence in Surface Waters and Sediments in Five River Mouths of Manila Bay. Frontiers in Environmental Science. 9. doi:https://doi.org/10.3389/fenvs.2021.719274.
Parker L. 2022 Apr 25. Microplastics are in our bodies. How much do they harm us? Environment. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/microplastics-are-in-our-bodies-how-much-do-they-harm-us.
Pustadan R. The Growing Threat of Microplastics and Plastics. NRCP. https://nrcp.dost.gov.ph/feature-articles/1024-the-growing-threat-of-microplastics-and-plastics.
WWF. 2021 Jul 2. The lifecycle of plastics. Wwforgau. https://www.wwf.org.au/news/blogs/the-lifecycle-of-plastics.
Zhao T, Lozano YM, Rillig MC. 2021. Microplastics Increase Soil pH and Decrease Microbial Activities as a Function of Microplastic Shape, Polymer Type, and Exposure Time. Frontiers in Environmental Science. 9. doi:https://doi.org/10.3389/fenvs.2021.675803.