Microplastic Pollution a Looming Crisis in Search of Macro Solutions
Sometimes it’s the little things that kill. Typically measuring less than five millimetres, the so-called microplastics are both little and potentially lethal, or at least exceedingly harmful to human health, animal welfare and the plant’s overall well-being.
And according to a new report from leading Chicago-based research intelligence firm PreScouter, the packaging industry must bear a lot of responsibility for its part for creating a global microplastics pollution crisis that is sorely in need of some serious clean-up.
Released earlier this year, the new Microplastics in Industry report clearly identifies packaging as being one of the four major industrial contributors to the microplastics overkill, the other three being cosmetics, textiles and paints.
In 2016, microplastic pollution accounted for 1.3 million metric tonnes, the report notes, representing 11 per cent of total ocean plastic pollution. If left unaddressed, microplastic ocean pollution is predicted to reach three million metric tonnes by 2040.
And while regulatory agencies have expressed concerns about the hazards associated with microplastics, the report’s authors acknowledge, a complete understanding of their impact on human health and the environment is still evolving.
While that may be true, that is hardly an excuse for not taking early remedial action to stave off what could well turn out to be a looming global health catastrophe down the road.
“Microplastics are being talked about as ‘the next forever chemicals’ based on raising health and safety concerns,” says PreScouter’s technical director, Marija Jovic. “Although there is more research needed to fully understand these concerns, some regulations in countries across the globe are already in place.
“Therefore, it is important to think about mitigating microplastics in order to keep the company’s reputation and revenue,” Jovic states.
As the PreScouter report points out, “Microplastics are considered an emerging persistent pollutant of diverse shapes, sizes, and chemical compositions and are found from Mount Everest to the deep sea and within wild animals and humans.
“They are produced because of commercial product development as well as the breakdown of bigger plastics,” the study points out. “Microplastics have been found to accumulate in the bodies of organisms and can cause physical harm, as well as potentially release toxic chemicals into the environment.”
According to the report, about 32 per cent of the 78 million metric tonnes of plastic packaging produced worldwide annually ends up in the oceans, providing huge continuous feedstock for microplastics proliferation.
“Many packaging materials degrade overtime into smaller and smaller fragments—producing microplastics that are released into the environment during use, disposal or recycling,” PreScouter notes.
While the sheer volume of packaging plastic-based materials that are produced and used globally makes it difficult to implement large-scale solutions that can effectively reduce microplastic pollution, the PreScouter report suggests that further advances in biodegradable and compostable plastic packaging can help alleviate the problem in the future.
But even without such dramatic technological leaps, there are various measures that companies can take at different points in a package’s life-cycle to minimize its microplastics footprint.
The study cites the example of Nestlé’s new range of Yes! snack bars—packed in paper wrappers coated with a biodegradable polymer—as a noble “upstream” measure for minimizing microplastics waste. Conversely, timely “downstream” measures can be equally effective.
“For example, Filtro produces washing machine filters that can capture up to 90 per cent of microfibers released during the laundry cycle,” the report notes.
While not every measure may be suitable for every particular application, there can be no disagreement that microplastics pollution in an issue we can only continue to ignore at a great peril.