How much plastic consumers eat in every year? Microplastics- An imminent threat to food chain

September 1, 2022

By Siddhi Joshi

Have you ever wondered, what is happening with the food container you just threw or the straw you just used to drink your favourite drink? Do you end up consuming the same plastic which you throw away? Yes, this may sound bizarre but microplastic is everywhere around you, in the air that you breathe, the water that you drink, and the food which you enjoy.

Approximately, 74,000 microplastic particles are ingested by human bodies, every year, which is even more disturbing when it comes to the people who regularly consume plastic-based bottled water. The estimated amount of plastic consumption then rises up to 90,000 particles per year.

What is Microplastic & where it is coming from?

The term microplastic itself suggests that it is a small particle of plastic of size less than 5 mm. Microplastic is generally categorized as primary & secondary microplastic. Primary microplastic is commercially designed for utilization in personal care as well as in cosmetic products. It is also widely used in clothing & other textile industries in the form of microfibers shed. These primary microplastics are added to a variety of products with the intention of getting a certain texture or using them in other specific ways. Secondary microplastic is formed by the breakdown of large plastic materials which are broadly recognized as Single Use Plastic. These items include straws, water bottles, cutleries, use & throw cups, and food containers. This breakdown is caused by environmental factors like sun radiation, temperature variations & ocean waves.

Natural factors like storms, winds, and water runoff in addition to littering increase their probable occurrences. This pollution is considered as a ‘Permanent Pollution’ because this plastic does not get destroyed for millions of years, and stays forever on the Earth.

Microplastic in food:

The broken down microplastic ends up on lands and in water bodies where many animals mistake it for food and consume it. This is the crucial step of microplastic entering the terrestrial, marine, and freshwater food chain.

Though microplastics are chemically inert, some researchers suggest that when harmful chemicals present in the environment come in contact with microplastics they act as bio-sponge and make them potentially hazardous. Recent studies show that, when animals consume microplastic, some show traits of storing them in the form of fatty tissues after passing through circulatory and lymphatic systems. It can lead to cardiovascular malfunction, liver dysfunction, and endocrine disruption. Seafood with mussels, sea salt, and drinking water are the majorly contaminated sources of microplastics.  Few data also indicate that soil also gets polluted with these tiny particles of plastic and eventually makes the terrestrial food chain contaminated. And it is also important to notice that, these microplastics can also enter our bodies directly through food packaging materials. So, if you are habitual to heating your favourite dish with its container by keeping it in the microwave, be aware!!  Heat and radiation cause the migration of harmful chemicals present in plastic into food.

Current studies about the unintentional migration of chemicals from plastic to food stated that microwavable plastic can also break down at specific times & temperatures. Other than food containers,

the plastic used in food processing equipment and filling lines is the major origin of occurrences of plastic particles in edible items.

The Health Issues Associated with Microplastics consumption

Plastic contains harmful chemicals like Bisphenol A and Phthalates which are used in the manufacturing of polyvinyl chloride and flexible yet durable and transparent plastic materials respectively. When plastic gets disintegrated into microplastic particles, these chemicals directly come in contact with food. Bisphenol A (BPA) is precisely linked to the interference with hormones and some studies show that it reduces fertility in men & develops polycystic ovary syndrome in women. In addition to this, Phthalates are also responsible for lower testosterone levels in male offspring. A chemical Styrene is another important material found in plastic that has detrimental effects on health such as nervous system issues weakened immune systems and various cancers.

According to an article published by Amber Charles Alexis, high levels of phthalates, and BPA cause disturbed fasting glucose levels, insulin resistance, and an increase in obesity leading to the greater chances of developing type 2 diabetes. It is also linked to weakened immune systems as these microplastics generate dysbiosis- the destruction of gut microflora and the growth of

harmful microbes.  As per the studies, 70-80% of the total immune cells of the body are present in the gut, and microplastics attack the gut which ultimately affects the overall immune system of the body.

 Hormonal issues linked to plastic exposure include:

  • Early-onset of puberty
  • Enlarged breasts in males
  • Infertility
  • Miscarriage
  • Low sperm count
  • Low androgen (male sex hormone) levels in males
  • Imbalances in oestrogen and progesterone in females

Other health effects are

  • Obesity
  • Foetal brain development – which means pregnant women need to be particularly careful about plastic exposure!
  • Hyperactivity
  • ADHD
  • Low IQ
  • Asthma

It’s obvious that plastic chemicals can affect the health of the endocrine system. But the nervous, immune, and digestive systems are also at risk.

Scientists from all over the world, are trying to find solutions for analysing the microplastic content in human tissues and the ways to eliminate them from food, air, and water as standard water purification systems and food preservation methods are unable to limit this contamination.

What you can do as a consumer?

1.  Minimize the exposure to Microplastics in your daily life

Exposure to microplastics through food is high, but you can minimize it by limiting your consumption of highly processed foods, choosing eco-friendly food packaging, and replacing plastic water bottles with glass or stainless-steel ones.

2) Use of sustainable products:

Always give preference to products made up of metal and cotton-based clothing materials. So, if you are going grocery shopping, carry your cotton tote bag which can bear enough weight and can be used 1000+ times before throwing. In addition to that, prioritize the use of cutleries and plates made up of metals that have a 100% recycling rate. Some other eco-friendly packaging includes plant-based materials like bamboo, rice, and banana leaves, which can also be used as a plastic replacement.

  • glass storage containers, portable bowls, and copper water bottles
  • stainless steel bento boxes and reusable water containers
  • bamboo lunch boxes, bowls, utensils, pantry storage jars
  • rice husk bowls, and storage containers
  •  Replace single-use or BPA-containing water bottles with glass or stainless-steel ones to reduce exposure to microplastics.

3. Understand the different plastic recycling codes:

Society of Plastic Industry (SPI) has launched some codes to differentiate between the various types of plastic and their recycling. These codes have been accepted globally and consumers can find them on plastic products. These codes consist of triangles formed by arrows with the number present inside them. Always give preference to the products with codes 2, 4, and 5 because they are considered as eco-friendly plastics, with less chemical migration and a high recycling rate. Whereas try avoiding products with codes 1, 3, and 6 due to the hazardous chemicals present in them. Also, recycling cannot be done for these materials.

4. Consume fresh food & water:

Fresh food and tap water have shown less microplastic contamination as compared to processed food wrapped in plastic and bottled water. Highly processed foods such as ready-to-eat meals, soda, and canned products consumption show more exposure to phthalates. Hence, it is advisable to consume freshly prepared food and limit the use of microwaves and commercially processed items. Also, drink regular tap water after boiling, and you can also carry your own metal water bottle to avoid purchasing plastic bottles when you are outside the home.

5. Demand for change:

A responsible Consumer, demands the use of recyclable and reusable packaging materials in supermarkets. The use of wax paper can be a reliable option after the plastic. This can be used to wrap high-risk products like meat & fish. For other products, a cloth bag can be a suitable option. Refillable cans & bottles can also help to reduce plastic waste generation.

What are the actions taken by the Government?

1. Government of Australia successfully banned single-use plastic in 2018, while countries like India and the United Kingdom kept restrictions on the use of straws, cutleries, and food packaging material from 2021. The United States of America has also banned these single-use plastics in eight states.

2. France government has successfully implemented regulations on the avoidance of plastic in the packaging of fresh fruits and vegetables and wrappings.

3. Countries like Germany, Austria, South Korea, and Wales are profitably recycling up to 56% of the total annual plastic waste produced (But considering the plastic production worldwide, the rate of recycled plastic is still negligible)

4. Various Food Safety Management Systems (FSMS) certification bodies have added the clauses demanding the Biphenyl A and Phthalates free certifications for different kinds of plastics used in food processing lines and packaging materials. And most importantly, do not underestimate the impact of the change you initiated, educate everyone around you about the single-use plastic and its detrimental effects and work with community to achieve the dream of ‘Plastic Free Food, Air, Water and Earth.

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