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When drinking water from plastic, do I also consume microscopic particles of the bottle or cup itself? Can they penetrate into my body? Where do they come from? How are they created? Are they dangerous? Is plastic everywhere? You can find answers to these and other questions in this article. Keep on reading.

What is microplastic?

Microplastics are smaller particles of plastic (polymers). It is an artificial, human made material that doesn’t occur by itself in the natural environment (read more: 7 plastic facts). It’s mainly produced from elements of the processing and distillation of oil and gas. It is a cheap, light, durable and corrosion-resistant material, which makes it very popular and widely available. Unfortunately, this makes it much more difficult to biodegrade when it is no longer useful for people.

Hows it created?

So far, most of the polymers we have produced haven’t biodegraded, but are crumbling into smaller particles. This process’s called plastic degradation. It’s mostly influenced by the following factors:

  • UV’s radiation (photodegradation) – chemical bonds’re destroyed due to the activation of plastic particles by light energy.
  • Oxidation (oxidative degradation) – disintegration of polymer particles under the influence of oxygen. Most polymers react very slowly with oxygen.
  • Temperature – even relatively high temperatures do not dissolve chemical bonds in plastic particles. However, it influences the acceleration of the others’ degradation processes.
  • Microorganisms – they break down complex organic compounds into simpler forms.

Let’s explain it easily: We throw a plastic bucket on the beach. It won’t decompose, but it’ll  keep breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. How long will they keep falling apart and how small can they become?

How small can become plastic trash?

Both very large and tiny, even microscopic. Scientists use the following division of plastic waste by particle size:

  • Macro-plastic – diameter from 2.5 to 100 cm.
  • Meso-plastic – diameter from 0.1 to 2.5 cm. You can see it with the naked eye or with an optical microscope.
  • Microplastic – diameter from 0.001 mm (1 µm) to 1 mm. To see it, use an optical or electron microscope.
  • Nanoplastic – particles smaller than 1 µm (0.001 mm) in diameter. You’ll need an electron microscope to notice them.

Where does microplastic come from?

There’re two sources of micro-plastic origin, depending on the way they are created:

  • Primary microplastic – manufactured as small particles. These are: elements of cosmetics (peeling), cleaning products, washing powders. To give an example – a washing machine during one washing cycle can generate up to 1900 microplastic particles!
  • Secondary microplastic – created as a result of the breakdown of larger plastic particles into smaller ones.

Is microplastic everywhere?

Unfortunately, it’s very likely. It’s present in seas and oceans, rivers and water bodies. Researchers have confirmed its occurrence in many remote areas, such as the Arctic and Antarctic. Researchers found it in ice and snow from those places. In my master’s thesis I examined whether it’s present in snow in high mountains. It sounds interesting? If so, here you’ll find more. 

Why is it so dangerous?

Recent studies show that microplastic may have a negative effect on both animals and humans. Causing: cancer, infertility, malfunction of the immune system and other problems. When researchers examined marine organisms, they found that after penetrating them, microplastics can cause both mental and physical damage.

Really? Plastic is harmful to me?

Micro plastic has a high surface area to particle volume ratio. So do pulmonary alveolus which play a key role in breathing. They are very small, but there are a lot of them and their total breathing area in our body is about 140 m2. Yes, the microplastic particles are small, but their relatively large surface area is ideal for various compounds and chemicals. Due to the high accumulation and sorption capacity on micro-plastics, both organic and inorganic pollutants can be found. The small size of the micro-plastic particles allows them to penetrate the cell membranes of living organisms. Pollutants carried by microplastics can disturb the function of internal system.

Wait, so when I drink water from a bottle, is the microplastic already there?

Unfortunately, probably yes. Especially if the bottle has been previously exposed to sunlight. Microplastic is so widely present among us that we won’t get rid of it at this point. This topic is still relatively little known and researched. However, in recent years, the amount of research and publications on this topic has increased significantly, there are still many questions and few answers. It isn’t fully known how humans, animals, hormones and organs will react to its presence. What effect will it have in the body after a few, a dozen or several dozen years? There are still many unknowns in this matter. Scientist all around the world are constantly researching the topic of microplastic, and its many unknowns.

What microplastic scenario do you see for our planet? Do you think it can be very dangerous, or is it another fake of environmentalists?

Share your idea in the comment below.

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