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From Landfill to Ocean to Plate: Microplastics Everywhere!

Recently, Malaysia earned an ignoble position as one of the top 10 countries in throwing away plastic trash.

In a survey conducted by UK-based energy service provider, Utility Bidder, Malaysia was found to be only one of two Southeast Asian countries (the other being the Philippines) to be put on this list, with the rest being countries in Africa and South America. Furthermore, the survey placed Malaysia in fifth place on this list, behind Saint Lucia (fourth), Trinidad and Tobago (third), Suriname and the Philippines which occupied the top spot[1].

According to Utility Bidder’s survey, Malaysia discards about 2.29 kilogrammes (kg) of plastic per person each year into the ocean[1]. Statista shows that plastic beverage bottles make up a majority of Malaysia’s ocean waste, based on the amount (9,951) collected during the 2021 international coastal cleanup. Among the other plastic waste making up this collection are plastic bottle caps (2,828), plastic grocery bags (2,768), and food wrappers (2,509).

Source: Unsplash credit to Tanvi Sharma

But even before that, in 2020, Malaysia ranked as one of the biggest plastic producers in the world. A 2019 study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reported that Malaysia has an annual per capita plastic use of 16.78 kg per person, much higher than China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam[2].

More terrifying, however, is the plastic we don’t see with the naked eye.

As plastic slowly degrades, it will disintegrate into microplastics which are practically invisible to the naked eye but no less dangerous to the environment, animals and ourselves.

This article shall explain why microplastics are so dangerous in the first place.

What Are Microplastics?

Microplastics are small pieces of plastics, less than 5 mm (0.2 inch) in length, that result as a consequence of plastic pollution. Microplastics originate from a variety of products, from cosmetics to synthetic clothing to plastic bags and bottles. Many products will end up in the environment as waste where they will eventually degrade and release small plastic particles.

As plastic is not biodegradable, however, the microplastics will remain within the environment where they’ll continue to accumulate. Worryingly, microplastics have been found in a wide range of environments, including freshwater systems and the ocean[3].

More recently, Japanese scientists found that there are microplastics in the clouds!

Researchers at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan, who recently studied the presence of microplastics in the atmosphere, stated[4]:

Ten million tons of these plastic bits end up in the ocean, are released with the ocean spray, and find their way into the atmosphere. This implies that microplastics may have become an essential component of clouds, contaminating nearly everything we eat and drink via ‘plastic rainfall.

The accumulation of microplastics in the water we drink, the air we breathe and even the food we eat will have detrimental consequences for our health and well-being.

It’s in Our Drinking Water…

Plastic waste makes up 80% of all marine pollution (it is estimated that there are about 50-75 trillion pieces of plastic and microplastics in the ocean) and around 8 to 10 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year[5]. Malaysia itself produced more than 0.94 million tonnes of mismanaged plastic waste per year by 2018, of which 0.14 to 0.37 million tonnes may have been washed into the oceans[6].

This problem should be an alarm bell especially since even our bottled drinking water is tainted with microplastics!

A study found the presence of microplastics in Malaysian bottled water brands, with sample sizes ranging from 8 to 22 particles/litre, with an average of 11.7 ± 4.6 particles/litre. Particle sizes ranging between 100 and 300 μm were dominant and accounted for approximately 31% of these bottled water brands. The study further noted that the microplastics in these bottled water brands are largely derived from the plastic packaging or plastic bottle caps, rather than an outside source[7].

It’s Even Found In The Seafood We Consume…

Malaysia, like all Southeast Asian countries, largely relies on its fisheries sector to provide food, income and employment. Indeed, based on the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC) statistics, in 2015, the Southeast Asia region contributed about 22% of the world’s total fishery production[8].

It is for this reason that marine microplastics are one of the biggest threats to our seafood industry, as many fish and other marine life will either passively ingest or mistake plastic particles for food. These microplastics will only continue to accumulate in these animal’s bodies and even up the food chain.

A study examining the presence of microplastics in 11 commercially important fish species collected from the marine fish market found that 9 out of 11 species were found to contain plastic particles. Out of 56 isolated particles, 76.8% were plastic polymers (with sizes ranging from 200 to 34900 μm), 5.4% were pigments, and 17.8% were unidentified[9].

Adding to the problem is that many commercially important fish are also used in making fishmeal for feeding livestock (i.e. poultry, pigs, farmed fish), thus it is likely that microplastics may also end up accumulating in the tissues of farmed animals and turn, may transfer into human consumers[9].

How Do We Avoid Microplastics?

Source: EcoWatch

Sadly, it has become nigh impossible to completely avoid consuming microplastics. However, there are some useful tips to reduce your exposure to microplastics, as well as lowering the amount of microplastics released into the environment by your daily activities[10]:

  1. Don’t microwave food in plastic: Microwaving food in plastic containers can cause harmful chemicals like BPA and phthalates to mix with your food. Instead, transfer food to ceramic or glass containers or use specific dishes for microwaving.
  2. Drink (filtered) tap water: Use a reusable glass, stainless steel, or silicone bottle to drink filtered tap water instead of buying new plastic bottles. These alternatives are safer and eco-friendly.
  3. Cut-out takeaway cups: Just like plastic containers, paper takeaway cups can release microplastics when exposed to hot liquids. Use reusable stainless steel or glass coffee cups instead.
  4. Change laundry habits: Synthetic clothing materials release microplastics in the wash. Opt for natural fibers like cotton and consider using a fibre-catching filter in your washing machine or a microfiber laundry bag.
  5. Pick plastic-free cosmetics: Many body products contain microplastics. Choose options without microbeads and plastic-based ingredients, opting for biodegradable alternatives or natural products.
  6. Limit seafood consumption: Lowering seafood intake can reduce exposure to microplastics. Consider shifting to a vegetarian or vegan diet to lessen environmental impact.
  7. Switch to loose-leaf tea: Plastic tea bags release a huge amount of microplastics when brewed. Swap to loose-leaf tea and use reusable linen tea bags or tea balls for steeping.
  8. Dust and vacuum regularly: Microplastics can be found in household dust. Regular cleaning can help prevent their accumulation and inhalation.
  9. Avoid single-use plastics: Use reusable items like water bottles, grocery bags, and straws to cut down on plastic waste. Choose fresh or bulk items at stores to reduce plastic packaging.
  10. Support policies that seek to limit single-use plastics: Advocate for policies that limit single-use plastics. Support politicians who prioritize public health and address plastic pollution.
Source: EcoWatch

Microplastics may be small but their threat is huge. By cutting out as much plastic from your daily life as possible, you can reduce the amount of microplastics that enter the environment, simultaneously protecting our natural ecosystems and our health.

Explore our sources:

  1. F.A. Rosli. (2023). Malaysia in world’s top 10 for throwing plastic waste and rubbish in the ocean [NSTTV]. New Straits Times. Link.
  2. WWF Releases Report Proposing Effective Solution to Mitigate Plastic Pollution in Malaysia. (2020). WWF. Link.
  3. Britannica. Link.
  4. ETX Daily Up. (2023). Microplastics are also in the sky, Japanese scientists say. FMT. Link.
  5. M. Fava. (2022). Ocean plastic pollution an overview: data and statistics. UNESCO Ocean Literacy Portal. Link.
  6. H.L. Chen, T.K. Nath, S.C., Vernon Foo, C.G. & A.M. Lechner. (2021). The plastic waste problem in Malaysia: management, recycling and disposal of local and global plastic waste. SN Applied Sciences. Link.
  7. S.M. Praveena, N.I.S. Ariffin, A.L. Nafisyah. (2022). Microplastics in Malaysian bottled water brands: Occurrence and potential human exposure. Environmental Pollution. Link.
  8. S. Sarijan, S. Azman, M.I. Mohd Said, Y. Andu and N.F. Zon. (2021). Microplastics occurrence in the commercial Southeast Asian seafood and its impact on food safety and security: A review. IOP Science. Link.
  9. S.S. Karbalaei, A.l Golieskardi, H. Hazilawati, S. Abdulwahid. (2019). Abundance and characteristics of microplastics in commercial marine fish from Malaysia. Marine Pollution Bulletin. Link.
  10. L. Harris. (2021). 10 Simple Ways to Avoid Microplastics in Your Everyday Life. EcoWatch. Link.
  11. J. McCarthy. (2021). 5 Easy Ways You Can Avoid Microplastics in Your Everyday Life. Global Citizen. Link.

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