Just opening a plastic bag or ripping open a plastic soda bottle can sprinkle small amounts of microplastics into the surrounding environment, according to a new study. Although only a teeny amount, this process is slowly but surely contributing to the world's mounting plastic pollution problem.
Scientists from Flinders University and The University of Newcastle in Australia have detailed how the cutting, ripping, or twisting of plastic can shed microplastics. Published in the journal Scientific Reports, they examined the number of microplastics that were released by opening different types of plastic packaging using a number of methods.
The results varied depending on the type of plastic and the method of opening. For example, cutting a soda bottle open with a pair of scissors generated more microplastics than simply tearing open a bag of chocolates. Nevertheless, all methods produced some traces of microscopic plastic pollution.
Using chemical tests and microscopy techniques, they found between 10 to 30 nanograms (0.00001–0.00003 milligrams) of microplastics may be shed for every 300 centimeters (118 inches) of plastic during cutting or twisting. These microplastics consisted of fibers, fragments, and triangles, ranging from nanometers to millimeters in size.
It’s unclear whether this should be a huge concern for human health. Generally speaking, scientists actually know relatively little about the long-term health effects of microplastics. A 2019 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that the effects of microplastics on our bodies probably aren't too severe, although they conceded this was only based on a limited amount of evidence and there’s much more to find out.
Nevertheless, the researchers say their findings should still raise some concerns.
“This finding sends an important warning, that we must be careful when opening plastic packaging, if we are concerned about microplastics and care about reducing microplastics contamination,” the study authors write in their paper
When you think of microplastics, you probably imagine cosmetic products with plastic microbeads. However, the reality of microplastics is much more complex. Between 15 to 30 percent of microplastics are directly released into the environment as small particles, namely through the laundering of synthetic clothes, abrasion of tires through driving, and intentionally added microplastics in personal cosmetics products. The remaining 70-plus percent are generated from the degradation of larger plastic objects, such as plastic bags, bottles, and fishing nets.
Although plastics have only been made for a little over a century, there’s evidence of them everywhere, often in the form of microplastics. Scientists have discovered these microscopic flecks and fibers of plastic in a number of unexpected and far-reaching locations, from the bottom of your bowels to America’s rainwater and the Arctic’s snow.