How much plastic do we ingest?

A recent study finds that  people could be ingesting approximately 5 grams of plastic every week on average, which is the equivalent weight of a credit card.

The analysis No Plastic in Nature: Assessing Plastic Ingestion from Nature to People prepared by Dalberg, based on a study commissioned by WWF and carried out by the University of Newcastle, Australia, suggests people are consuming about 2000 tiny pieces of plastic every week. That amounts to approximately 21 grams a month, and just over 250 grams a year.

The University of Newcastle is the first global analysis to combine data from over 50 studies on the ingestion of microplastics by people. The findings are an important step towards understanding the impact of plastic pollution on humans. It also further confirms the urgent need to address the plastic system so that it does not pollute ecosystems in the first place.

Ingestion patterns

Plastic is not biodegradable. Instead, under the influence of nature, it breaks down into ever smaller particles and eventually ends up everywhere: in the sea, in the Arctic ice, in the mountains. Even in the most remote areas, researchers have discovered microplastics. The particles, which are smaller than five millimetres, are transported by water and travel great distances even through the atmosphere, ready for inhalation. Marine and land animals absorb tiny, insoluble plastic particles through their food, which we humans in turn consume.

Main source is drinking water

The study demonstrates a wide range in ingestion patterns. The single largest source of plastic ingestion is through water, both bottled (especially reusabe PET bottles) and tap, all over the world. Of the consumables studied,  those with the highest recorded plastic levels include shellfish, beer and salt. Particles also enter our bodies via cosmetics, food wrapped in plastic or plastic dishes.

The global average age of a human being is 79 years. Assuming that the microplastic situation does not improve or worsen, we will eat 20 kilograms in this time. That equals the weight of two large plastic waste bins.

Even this is a conservative estimate, because the worldwide production of plastic is constantly increasing. In 2016, 396 million tonnes of new plastics were produced worldwide – two hundred times more than in 1950. According to the WWF, a third of this is released into the environment. By 2030, plastic production could increase by another 40 percent.

How dangerous are microplastics?

How microplastics affect human health  is a controversial topic because the long-term effects on our bodies have not yet been studied. According to recent information, the current concentration of microplastics in drinking water poses no danger, writes the World Health Organization (WHO) in a report. Mechanisms in the body ensure that even smaller particles are excreted by the body. However, many more studies are needed to investigate health effects.

The mere possibility that it might be toxic must give cause for concern, says Thava Palanisami from the University of Newcastle, who was involved in the study.

Regional variations

Large regional variations are reflected, with twice as much plastic found in the US or India than in European or Indonesian water.  The findings of the report demonstrate that the problem of plastic pollution is a universal one and directly affecting people. Leakage of plastic into our environment and food web has been met so far with an inadequate global response by governments.

The plate of microplastics in Switzerland is not likely to be as full as in the global perspective. Empa, the materials research institute in Dübendorf, estimates that around 5000 tons of plastic, or 630 grams per capita, are released into the environment in Switzerland every year. Only about 12 percent of this is microplastics. The lower amount, compared to other countries, is due to a well-functioning waste system without wild landfills.

Call for governments to wake up and step up

“These findings must serve as a wake-up call to governments.  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. Global action is urgent and essential to tackling this crisis,” said Marco Lambertini, WWF International Director General.

“While research is investigating potential negative effects of plastic on human health, we are all clear that this is a worldwide problem that can only be solved by addressing the root cause of plastic pollution. If we don’t want plastic in our bodies, we need to stop the millions of tons of plastic that continue leaking into nature every year. In order to tackle the plastic crisis, we need urgent action at government, business and consumer levels, and a global treaty with global targets to address plastic pollution,” continued Lambertini.

No Plastic in Nature: Assessing Plastic Ingestion from Nature to People calls for governments to step up and play a key role in ensuring the entire chain in the plastic system, from manufacturers to consumers, are held accountable to the common goal of ending plastic pollution.

“While the awareness of microplastics and their impact on the environment is increasing, this study has helped to provide an accurate calculation of ingestion rates for the first time. Developing a method for transforming counts of microplastic particles into masses will help determine the potential toxicological risks for humans moving forward,”  comments  Dr Thava Palanisami, project co-lead and microplastics researcher at the University of Newcastle.

Ingestion is just one of many problems

Ingestion is just one aspect of a much wider plastics crisis. Plastic pollution is a major threat to wildlife, not only through microplastic ingestion but via entanglement and habitat destruction. Plastic pollution also has damaging economic consequences, with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) estimating its annual economic impact on the ocean economy at US$8 billion.

Image by Florida Sea Grant/Creative Commons

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