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Plastic is a highly durable, flexible yet cheap alternative to other materials. John Wesley Hyatt invented the first synthetic polymer in 1896, paving the way to the invention of plastic in 1905. He aimed to provide a substitute for ivory, to put a stop to the slaughter of elephants. A very ironic discovery, as what was created to protect nature, is one of its main antagonists.
This indestructible material takes 450 years to decompose, but until then, it breaks up into fragments ranging from microscopic to 5mm pieces called microplastics.
Primary microplastics are purposefully made to be that size, like the microbeads in toothpastes and scrubs. Secondary microplastics are the result of larger plastic breaking down due to weathering by the wind, tide and sun.
They are too small to be filtered out, and are commonly mistaken for food by marine organisms, consequently, ending up in our plates. Researchers have located them in water, air, soil, salt, honey, beer, tea bags and sea food, making it is impossible to avoid their intake.
Plastics in the ocean attract certain chemicals classified as persistent organic pollutants, POPs for short, which adhere to their surfaces. The magnitude of their leaching increases with the decrease in size of plastic, as their surface area to volume ratio increases. POPs have a greater affinity for plastic than water, so their concentration on microplastics is greater than in the surrounding water.
POPs have a high affinity for fats, therefore once micro plastics are ingested, the toxins pass through the cell membranes and bioaccumulate in fatty tissues, even in lipid-soluble vitamins A, D and K, and later biomagnify up the food chain.
The toxins can be passed on from the placenta and breast milk to the developing offspring and may disrupt the reproductive system, during fundamental stages of development.
Besides that, plastic already contains many additives like pigments, flame retardants, ultraviolet stabilisers, antimicrobial agents, BPA and phthalates. Many of these may alter the proper function of the endocrine system, and interrupt brain development in foetuses and children. Inhalation of micro plastics has been linked the asthma, heart diseases and cancer, and if they are small enough they could easily enter our blood stream. With that said, it is difficult to experiment the effect on humans precisely since one cannot be asked to ingest plastic.
Microplastics are causing a mega problem, however, a future without it is very unrealistic because plastic is used in everyday life. We must implement new, attractive ways to get people to prevent more plastic from entering the ocean, for example social plastic and The Plastic Bank where it is used as a currency, and an overall no waste mentality, like refusing single use plastics, and buying items second hand. This goes to show that our ill management of plastic is coming right back to us.
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