Experts Detail the Hidden Threat of Microplastics in Our Environment

WORDS PROFESSOR DR CHRIS GIBBINS & PROFESSOR TING KANG-NEE

On Earth Day, observed on 22 April and themed ‘Invest In Our Planet’, we would like to call your attention to the pressing matter of microplastic pollution.

Did you know that Malaysia is ranked third (after The Philippines and India) in the list of countries contributing most to marine plastic pollution? Dutch academic Lourens JJ Meijer highlighted these rankings in a paper published in 2021, and the position of Malaysia should be enough to cause us to reflect on our contribution to the global problem of plastic waste.

WHAT ARE MICROPLASTICS?

When we think of plastic waste we tend to think of plastic bottles and bags, but once these everyday items break down, they cause a more insidious threat to the environment – microplastic.

Microplastics are microscopic pieces of plastic that are often invisible to the naked eye, with the very smallest pieces being within the nano-size range (less than 1 µm, which is 0.001 mm).

In fact, some plastics are deliberately manufactured at this microscopic size range—for example, beads used in toothpaste and other personal care products, or used in industrial processes.

THE MICROPLASTICS THREAT ON HUMAN HEALTH
  • There is mounting evidence that it causes respiratory problems, especially for those with existing conditions.
  • There are also increasing reports associating inflammatory bowel disease with the presence of microplastics in stool.
  • Although there is no direct evidence to link microplastics and cancer, its presence can lead to tissue inflammation which may result in DNA damage, the initial stage of cancer development.
HOW MICROPLASTICS FIND THEIR WAY INTO OUR BODY
How microplastics can end up in our body. Click on the image for a larger, clearer version.

For the past four years, our research team from the University of Nottingham Malaysia has been looking at microplastics in the Langat River in Selangor, as well as in the bodies of animals that live in the river.

We have found microplastic particles in every one of the hundreds of river water samples we have collected, in concentrations ranging from two to more than 80 pieces per litre of water.

We have also found very high concentrations on the riverbed, with up to 150,000 pieces of microplastic sitting on the riverbed surface per square meter.

Most alarmingly, we have found microplastic in the body of almost every single animal we collected, including aquatic insects, mussels and fish. Fish were the most highly contaminated, and our latest work suggests that microplastic is not only present on the gills and in the guts of fish, but in their flesh.

This is very worrying, as it means that people who consume fish caught from our rivers are likely to be routinely ingesting microplastic. The same applies to fish caught from oceans, where microplastic contamination is also very high.

WE NEED TO URGENTLY DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS

The human health risks posed by microplastics mean that urgent action is needed.

Reduce exposure to microplastics

This can be extremely challenging as microplastics are already in the air we breathe and the water we drink, and very likely in much of the food we eat.

Some good places to start:

  • Use filters on tap water
  • Avoid eating hot food or drinking hot drinks from plastic containers
  • Avoiding eating bottom feeders like shellfish and prawns 
Reduce the use of single-use plastics and hence the amount of plastics added to the environment

Removing the microplastics already present in the environment will be difficult, but we can take action to reduce how much more we add. This can only be achieved with concerted efforts on multiple fronts.

Individually we should be mindful of how much plastic we use, and especially how we dispose of it.

  • Bring our own stainless-steel containers to pack food bought from food stalls
  • Use glass or metal bottles to refill instead of buying bottled water go a long way in reducing the amount of single-use plastics that may end up in the environment.
Improve and adopt recycling habits

This needs to be supported by better waste management facilities and recycling options being made available by local councils.

Taxes or other fiscal incentives could be introduced to help reduce plastic use and increase the use of recyclable plastics.

Government funding for research to help find new ways of removing plastics and microplastics from our marine and freshwater ecosystems, and to help develop new biodegradable plastics, is greatly needed.

LET’S TAKE ACTION!

Malaysia has T-minus seven years to fulfil its Roadmap Towards Zero Single-use Plastics 2018-2030. Time is ticking. The attitudes and behaviours of everyone, from the authorities and industry to the public at large, need to change for the sake of both current and future generations.

Let’s all try to use less plastic between now and next year’s Earth Day.