Microplastics: Recyclable rubbish

If your recycling bin is anything like mine, then it’s overflowing with plastic packaging. The rubbish bin is even worse – filled with plastic wrap and other bits and pieces that can’t currently be recycled and have to be sent off to landfill. We’re drowning in plastic, and although there are people trying to live a plastic-free life, it feels as though that could be a full time job. Plastic has become the material of choice since the 1950s, since it is cheap and lightweight and can be fashioned into all kinds of things. The problem is that most of the 8.3bn tonnes of plastic we’ve made still exist, either in landfills across the world, or the oceans. It’s going to last hundreds, if not thousands, of years, and is causing damage to our environmental life support system.

There have been a number of worrying new stories (based on scientific research) published this year. We know that plastic ends up inside fish (and hence our food chain), possibly because they mistake it for food.

A lot of people don’t eat seafood, so they’re probably not too worried about that.

We also now know that tiny bits of plastic are being found in sea salt, all around the world.

But we can dig plastic-free salt out of salt mines, and we should eat less salt anyway, so that’s not a problem either. Right?

Most worrying of all, plastic has been found in drinking water, all around the world. More samples are contaminated than not. And it includes bottled water, and water from natural springs.

Try finding a way around drinking water….

These recent studies are talking about microplastics – the tiny bits of plastics that are created when larger bits (e.g. bottles) break down in the environment, or are added to toiletries as microbeads, or are shed by synthetic fabrics everytime we wash our clothes. Although these are worrying enough, scientists are more concerned about nanoplastics, which are even smaller and could – potentially – find their way into living cells. We don’t know what the health effects are, and at the moment we can’t even detect nanoplastics.

What can I do?

The human race needs to reduce its dependency on plastic, and switch to the starch-based plastics that biodegrade properly where possible. That’s going to take some time, and lots of work, and plenty of pressure from consumers to encourage it. Water treatment facilities need to be upgraded to filter out microplastic contamination.

In the meantime, we can try and cut our own plastic consumption, by buying reusable items (e.g. water bottles) and (where possible) shopping in the plastic-free shops that are springing up.

We also need to ensure that whatever plastic we do end up with is disposed of responsibly, in the recycling bin or the landfill bin, and doesn’t end up flying about the countryside as plastic litter.

Switching to natural fibres will reduce microplastic waste, and there are companies developing laundry bags that can filter out microplastic strands (although they will then just end up in landfill).

The UK government has banned microbeads in some toiletries from next year, but it’s not a total ban, and we should try and avoid products using microbeads at all.

Microplastics also come from car tyres, so you can add this to the benefits of reducing the amount you drive….

Microplastics: Used teabags

So, whilst this is a worrying issue, and microplastics are currently unavoidable, we can work towards reducing them. A plastic topic that I have revisted over the years is the thorny problem of tea bags. Most are now heat-sealed, which requires them to have a small amount of plastic in the mix. They can still be labelled as ‘compostable’, but every tea bag we throw on the compost heap will be adding some plastic to the garden. It will break down (some heaps are better than others at doing that), but not entirely.

There are two solutions to this. The first is to stop composting tea bags, and leave that issue for someone else to deal with. That’s not entirely ethical, of course, and certainly doesn’t encourage manufacturers to think twice about adding plastic to their tea bags. It is possible to rip open the bags, compost the tea leaves and just dispose of the bags, but it’s a faff and the plastic contamination just ends up somewhere else.

The second solution is to switch to brands (and there aren’t many) who use plastic-free bags, or to switch to using loose tea. I haven’t managed to do either, yet, due to a combination of laziness and a preference for a brand that doesn’t have a loose tea product (they are increasingly hard to find).

But I really don’t want plastic contamination in my soil and in my plants, so when my current batch of tea bags runs out, it’s time to take the plunge and move to loose leaf tea. I have some natty infusers, so it shouldn’t be a faff, I just need to break the tea bag habit.

I didn’t think anyone had done (or at least published) any research on microplastics in soil. But they have. The Danish government has produced a report on Microplastic in Danish wastewater: Sources, occurrences and fate, which looks into microplastic contamination of agricultural soils. That topic was also addressed in a scientific paper in Environmental Science and Technology, and there’s a more accessible article about it – Microplastics in agricultural soils: A reason to worry? – which confirms that whilst we know there are microplastics in soils, we have no idea what effect they will have on soil organisms, productivity, and human health.