Microplastic in the Food Chain
In 2019, the world produced an estimated 368 million metric tons of plastic materials. And China is the leader in plastic production, manufacturing 31% of the total global amount.
Unfortunately, plastic is often improperly disposed of and poorly regulated at materials recovery facilities. For these reasons, most of the plastic winds up in our environment in the form of microplastic.
epSos.de, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic material that are found in many shapes, sizes, and forms. Typically, they range in size between 0.0001-5mm. To give you some context, that’s only about the size of a sesame seed or smaller! Plus, microplastic can come in the form of pellets, beads, flakes, and much more.
The majority of microplastic particles come from human activity. This may include plastic in beauty products or plastic packaging. Microplastics are also created when processing large objects at waste management plants.
Regardless of the source of microplastics, the current concern is how these particles are making it into our food chain.
How are microplastics entering our food chain?
Did you know in 2010, about 8 million tonnes of plastic (3% of worldwide plastic waste) was transported from smaller bodies of water and into our oceans? As you can imagine, 11 years later, the amount of global plastic waste has grown.
Let’s first take a look at the decomposition of plastic waste. Because of the effects of sunlight and physical wear, shoreline plastic material becomes weaker. As a result, the plastic turns brittle and is easily broken.
Next, currents and waves sweep the broken pieces of plastic into the sea. And eventually, marine wildlife mistakes the microplastic pieces for food.
To refresh your memory, food chains illustrate the relationship of diets between wild organisms. Due to their diverse eating habits, several organisms can participate in multiple food chains. This fact connects many food chains together, creating a food web. And in the food chain, humans are considered to be the top predators of marine organisms.
The theory is that lower-level organisms in the food chain, like plankton, ingest microplastic. To add to that, the plankton themselves are eaten by other predators in the ocean. Finally, humans then consume the tainted seafood.
Humans may also introduce microplastic into the food chain through packaging, processing, and cooking methods.
Which foods contain the most amount of plastic?
Numerous studies have analyzed fish and shellfish microplastic contamination. The positive samples of seafood originated from Europe, Asia, and the Americas. The results suggest that samples with the most amount of plastic were from waters with highly polluted shorelines.
Microplastic fragments are commonly found in beer because of local water sources. Although researchers assume it’s a global trend, they only analyzed American and German beers.
One study evaluated 19 samples of honey from Germany, France, Italy, and Mexico. In addition to the above countries, another study investigated 47 honey samples from Latin America, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Spain, and other non-EU regions. All of the honey samples contained synthetic particles that are unrelated to pollen. The results suggest that floating foreign particles in the atmosphere fall onto flowers. Then the worker bees carry the material from the flowers and back to the hive.
The production of table salt involves distilled seawater, so it usually contains plastic. Salt samples from 16 countries in total showed the offending contaminant. But again, the amount of plastic is dependent on the number of pollutants in nearby water sources.
Many plastics have been banned in the last decade, so it’s no surprise that packaged foods made our list. Items like tea bags, bottled water, or ready-to-eat meals have all shown to leach microplastic materials into foods.
Are microplastics in food harmful to your health?
Due to a lack of data, there’s no definitive answer to that question. Studies have shown that once digested, microparticles may move to the bloodstream but they’re unable to enter the major organs. Another determining factor in whether particles can move throughout the body is size. So far, there’s no confirmed toxicity from microplastic ingestion. Besides that, research still suggests that circulating plastic in the body may cause inflammation and impair immune function.
What can I do?
- Reduce your seafood intake
- Use glass bottles or metal canteens for water
- Use filtered water
- Use loose-leaf tea leaves or check the tea bag materials
- Heat food in glass containers or on plates
- Use Himalayan rock salt
- Drink beer made with filtered water
- Use silicone rubber cookware and cooking utensils
At Solgaard, we strive to make premium and sustainable travel equipment. When you purchase any product, 6 lbs of ocean bound plastic is removed from coastal communities! At our world's current rate of plastic pollution, there could be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050. Our bigger mission is to stop the flow of plastic entering the ocean. Learn more here.
*Banner photo by Oregon State University