Every week, we ingest as much as five grams of microplastics – that's the equivalent of swallowing a teaspoon of plastic or munching on your credit, according to the WWF.

By Ian Horswill


Posted on June 13, 2019

Every week, we ingest as much as five grams of microplastics – the equivalent of swallowing a teaspoon of plastic or munching on your credit card.

This shocking statistic came out of a study on microplastics commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and carried out by the microplastics research team at the University of Newcastle, Australia.

“To solve this crisis, we’re going to need everyone. Speak up to world leaders TODAY – it’s time to break this circle of denial,” WWF said on Facebook.

The University of Newcastle study collated the findings of 50 international research papers in a bid to provide an accurate calculation of ingestion rates of microplastics.

It found that based on “conservative assumptions”, people are consuming about 2,000 tiny pieces of plastic each week.

University of Newcastle researcher Thava Palanisami said in a statement that water, both bottled and tap, was the largest single source of plastic ingestion.

drinking water Unsplash

“In water it’s mostly fibres which could come from industrial activities,” he said.

“It’s released with other gases and chemicals and this can then ultimately sink into the freshwater bodies and that gets into the drinking water.

“And there are no filtration systems for bottled water that could filter out those sub-micron phase particles.”

Of the consumables studied, those with the highest recorded plastic levels included shellfish, beer and salt.

Palanisami said microplastics were an emerging contaminant and there was little specific data for Australia. However, he would expect lower ingestion rates here due to less seafood consumption and a cleaner environment.

He said the next phase of their research will be to better understand the human health impacts of ingesting plastics.

“What is the real impact? This needs to be explored,” Palanisami said. “What will happen if you ingest 5g of plastic a week? Is it toxic or an inert material?”

WWF said the leakage of plastic into the environment and food chain has been met with an inadequate global response from governments.

“These findings must serve as a wake-up call to governments,” said Marco Lambertini, WWF International Director General.

“Not only are plastics polluting our oceans and waterways and killing marine life — it’s in all of us and we can’t escape consuming plastics.

“We need urgent action at government, business and consumer levels, and a global treaty with global targets to address plastic pollution.”

A million plastic bottles bought in a minute

Every person reading this has used a plastic bottle, many of whom likely used one in the past day or week, wrote geologist Trevor Nace, a Forbes contributor. The same goes for plastic film used in the home or found on perishable fruit and vegetables.

“There are no signs of decreasing plastic use, hence the plastic decomposition clock will constantly be reset. Secondly, and more importantly, we must understand how this increase in plastic waste globally will impact other systems and their function,” wrote Nace.

Earth Day, citing Ban the Bottle, said humans worldwide buy around 1 million plastic bottles per minute as of last year.

A whopping 91 per cent of all plastic is not recycled, according to National Geographic.

Plastic commonly made from polyethylene terephthalate (Pet), takes more than 400 years to degrade – meaning the original plastics made when its use become popular from 1950 still exist. Only 12 per cent has been incinerated.

Plastic film — including single-use plastic bags — was the third most common kind of litter pulled from Australian waters, according to data collected by the Australian Marine Debris Initiative.

Nationally, volunteers collected 155,000 individual pieces of plastic film in the past year. More than 640,000 pieces of hard plastic were gathered over the same period.

It is estimated that despite the dangers it presents, more than half a trillion plastic bottles will be sold in 2020.

Most plastic, bottles included, ends up in either the ocean or in a landfill.

The impact of plastic in the ocean

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In January, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in partnership with the World Economic Forum, estimated that by 2050, the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish. The plastic that finds its way into the oceans will inevitably pose the risk of ingestion by sea birds, fish and marine mammals. In March, it was widely reported that a curvier beaked whale found ill in the Philippines had 40kgs (88 pounds) of plastic waste into its belly. In 2015, scientists estimated that around 90 percent of all seabirds have ingested some amount of plastic. UNESCO estimates that 100,000 marine mammals die because of plastic pollution each year.

Recent studies point to increasing amounts of plastic within the seafood bought and consumed at the dinner table. A 2014 study by Ghent University in Belgium claimed that people who regularly eat seafood ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic each year. In fact, only 17 people were in the study and they were eating more than four oysters and between 17 and 18 mussels every day, which is an extraordinarily high consumption. A study by Plymouth University found that one-third of 504 fish, across 10 species caught, contained tiny pieces of plastic.

A tool developed on Plastic Drift shows you where plastic is likely to end up in the oceans when the user chooses an initiation point. This shows what happens to a bottle put into the ocean.

Plastic In landfills

Based on current projections, it is estimated that 12 billion metric tons of plastic will find a home in landfills by 2050, scientists from the University of Georgia, the University of California, Santa Barbara and Sea Education Association, found.

Landfills can be heavily regulated, unlike the oceans, and plastics can be contained. Landfills are engineered waste disposal systems, Erudite state. The modern landfills are made to prevent the loss of leachate and gases to the surrounding environment.

“One thing is clear, the ever-growing demand for plastic is unlikely to be abated soon. Globally, we will have to manage the increasing risk of plastics in our environment and the harmful consequences that lie therein. As any global challenge such as climate change, the likelihood for global cooperation is difficult at best. One of the many enormously difficult and global challenges we will face in the coming decades,” wrote Nace.