Going to the park or beach and seeing single-use plastics piling up can be distressing. But as scientists are learning, the plastic pollution problem is far more significant than can be seen by the naked eye.
Plastic bags and bottles are breaking down into microplastics and nanoplastics, which are found everywhere from the deepest part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench, and inside our bodies. Businesses are perfectly positioned to address this problem by investing in sustainable materials and creating a circular economy for plastics.
In 2019, global production of plastic reached 368 million tons – with only about 9% of the total plastic produced being recyclable. That plastic is now piling up and not just in landfills. The resilience, flexibility, and cheapness of plastic have made it a wonder material to businesses for years.
Yet, that resilience also means that plastics persist in the environment for a very long time. Unlike more sustainable materials, plastics are gradually broken down into smaller and smaller pieces due to friction, heat, and UV rays from the sun.
When these plastic particulates become smaller than 5mm in length, they become what is called microplastics. At this size, plastic is tough to manage once in the environment. Unfortunately, the problem gets even worse as these particulates continue to break down, eventually reaching sizes that require a powerful microscope to see. Once in the nanometer size range, plastics are referred to as nanoplastics.
Due to their resilience and size, microplastics, especially nanoplastics, have filled the ocean and permeated even the most remote places on Earth, including Antarctica. Some scientists have even predicted that if plastic pollution continues to grow, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050. The thought of unseen plastics reaching every inch of our environment can be worrying, but potentially more concerning is the prevalence of plastic in the food chain.
The Toxic Effects of the Plastic Pollution Problem
Research on microplastics and nanoplastics in the food chain is still in its early stages. However, scientists have already found that these particulates are making their way into the tissues of animals.
One way this happens is through filter-feeding marine animals like whale sharks and mussels. These animals filter massive amounts of water for nutrients. Unfortunately, they also filter plastics out of the water.
These plastics are accumulating in the tissue of these animals instead of just passing through the digestive tract. Those accumulated plastics are passed up the food chain when these animals are eaten, either by humans or other predators. This way, nanoplastics are making their way into humans’ bodies as well.
The effects of these plastics on living organisms are still largely unknown. Still, research has shown that microplastics can leach Bisphenol A (also known as BPA). BPA is a compound that has been linked to disrupted hormone levels, which can cause problems with a person’s development, metabolism, and reproductive system.
Microplastics can also bind with other chemicals in the environment like pesticides and carry them into other organisms’ bodies, damaging vital organs like the liver. When these plastics eventually decompose, they can turn into toxic chemicals, some of which include known human carcinogens.
Why Businesses Should Embrace Corporate Responsibility in Response to Microplastics
According to The Guardian, 20 businesses produce more than half of the world’s plastic. In other words, the plastic pollution problem – fueled by the greed of a few corporations – threatens all humanity.
While the plastic pollution problem can seem daunting given how ubiquitous plastics have become, there is good news. Businesses worldwide are in the perfect position to make changes to mitigate the world’s plastic pollution problem. It is likely that cleaning up our mess will not be cheap, but many businesses have an opportunity to profit from addressing microplastics.
As the issue of microplastics and nanoplastics becomes more well-known, the pressure on businesses to address the problem increases. The public is increasingly considering the environmental impact of their purchases, leading to companies with bad reputations for corporate environmental responsibility to suffer the consequences. The way a company uses plastic has become an essential part of its reputation. Conversely, companies who abandon single-use plastics and embrace sustainable materials can benefit from a good reputation as a sustainable business.
Additional pressure to reduce plastic use comes in the form of government regulation. The worsening plastic pollution problem has already triggered governments worldwide to take measures like banning the use of disposable plastic bags. Further laws are likely to follow. By reducing plastic use and investing in sustainable materials, businesses can avoid being negatively impacted by regulations.
How Can We Fight The Spread of Microplastics and Nanoplastics?
There are many ideas for addressing the spread of microplastics and nanoplastics. One of the most direct things businesses can do is to stop producing products that contain microplastics. For example, many cosmetic products use plastics, and so do many facewashes. These plastics end up polluting the community’s water when washed off in the sink.
Businesses can also switch to sustainable materials instead of single-use plastics. Many companies are developing biodegradable materials that can replace plastics. For example, the New York company Ecovative is developing a mushroom based material to substitute plastics with.
The government can also play a significant role in helping businesses fix the plastic pollution problem. Right now, the cost of recycling plastics exceeds the cost of producing new plastics. By incentivizing plastics recycling, governments can reduce the amount of plastic in landfills and the ocean. Increased plastic recycling will also significantly reduce the use of environmentally harmful petroleum products needed to create new plastics.
Long-term, the plastic pollution problem calls for the collaboration of governments and businesses. Through collaboration, we can build a circular economy for plastics that creates an attractive market for recycling plastics. These collaborations can ensure that plastics end up in neither our food chains nor the environment.
Businesses are currently discouraged from producing plastics with recycled material because it is more expensive than producing virgin plastic. But through collaboration with other companies or government-related entities, a market can be created that rewards businesses for using plastics as many times as possible and then disposing of them properly.
If you have a business and wish to reduce its production of Microplastics, Earthwatch provides an assessment that will help you determine the best way to proceed. These assessments are tailored to suit businesses from different industries.
Individuals can help fight microplastics too. One of the most significant steps any of us can take is to reduce our consumption of single-use plastics. This is not always easy to do, but choosing products that use sustainable packaging cut down plastic use directly and encourages corporate environmental responsibility. Supporting companies that use sustainable materials will ensure that more companies do the same.
Individuals can also petition their local legislators to pass laws that reduce plastic pollution. For example, the Break Free From Pollution Act will be voted on in 2021. If passed, this bill would represent by far, the largest step in addressing the plastic pollution problem.
Experts say that plastic pollution has already become so prevalent that it will leave its mark in the fossil record. There’s no time to waste. Now is the time to reduce the world’s plastic production and start cleaning our mess – for the future of the environment and humanity as a whole.