From plastic to plate
by Simone do Carmo
in Blogs

We’re becoming increasingly aware of the polluting effect of plastic in our environment. In the last few years, alarm bells have been raised about how microplastics – small fragments of plastic less than 5mm in size – are accumulating in our soils and seas, working their way up the food chain and, ultimately, ending up on our plate.

The most common source of microplastics in food is seafood. A comprehensive study recently revealed that exposure to microplastics affects the growth and survival of marine animals including zooplankton, a source of food for many species of fish. Studies showing microplastic contamination in mussels and oysters suggest that shellfish eaters might eat up to 11,000 microplastics a year!

Microplastics have also been found in canned fish (although in lower amounts) and sea salt. A recent study, which looked at 15 brands of sea salt, revealed it may contain up to 600 particles per kilogram. Let’s put this into context: if you eat the average recommendation of no more than 6g of salt per day, this translates into an intake of 3.6 microplastics per day; i.e. 1,314 microplastics per year.

These microplastics are not just in the sea and threatening marine life. One study examined 19 honey samples and found up to 660 particles per kilogram. A German study looked into 24 beer brands and found up to 109 microplastics per litre. Another investigation showed that many organic fertilisers contain up to 150 microplastics per kilogram. This is alarming as these tiny fragments are entering the soil and end up in all the non-marine food we’re putting on our plates.

A further study showed an 83 per cent microplastic contamination of tap water samples around the world. Considering how many people drink tap water and use it to water their gardens, this is particularly worrying.

It is still unclear how these microplastics affect human health. Bisphenol A (BPA) is one of the most studied chemicals found in plastic. A growing body of literature shows that BPA exposure is associated with adverse effects in humans, including reproductive, developmental and metabolic effects. This is why people have been swapping their plastic water bottles for plastic-free ones.

An in vitro study found that phthalates (a chemical that makes plastic flexible) increased breast cancer cell growth. Although this is worrying, we can’t assume phthalates do this in vivo without further research. Another study looked at human lung specimens and found an 87 per cent presence of plastic fibres, likely due to the inhalation of microplastics in the air we breathe. The researchers suggested these particles may contribute towards an increased risk of lung cancer.

Perhaps our liver can deal with these microplastics for now, but if we keep using and discarding plastic at the rate we are, I’m concerned we’ll reach a point of no return. I can’t help but wonder that if these fragments are present, nanoparticles (which can’t be measured) are also there and could be penetrating our cells.

Although there are global efforts to tackle this problem, progress has been slow. As consumers, we can also try to reduce our plastic footprint.

Here are just a few things to get you started:

  • - Swap your plastic water bottle for a plastic-free one
    - Give up all plastic-bottled beverages
    - Carry a reusable (stainless steel) mug for coffee and other drinks
    - Limit your use of plastic food packaging
    - Use reusable bags when you go shopping
    - Shop at your local farmers’ market
    - Buy fresh bread that comes in paper bags or no bags
    - Give up chewing gum
    - Stop using plastic straws
    - Use your own plastic-free and reusable container for food
    - Request restaurants to use your container to pack any leftovers
    - Make your own cleaning products (e.g. vinegar and water), which will be less toxic and eliminate all the plastic bottles
    - Use natural cleaning cloths and scrubbers
    - Give up shampoo in plastic bottles
    - Use a razor with replaceable blades instead of a disposable razor