Jordan: There’s something about snow that just seems pristine. It starts with the purity of the color, of course, but more than that, it falls gently to the ground and just sits there. Brilliant, white, untouched. You can tell if something or someone or some dog or other creature has messed with snow, or you can tell if it’s as pure as it was when it fell from the sky except bad news…. even that snow has plastic in it.
News Clip: An alarming new study published Wednesday says scientists discovered microscopic particles of plastic in snow from the Alps in to remote regions of the Arctic. The findings are part of a growing body of evidence showing particles from plastic waste end up in our water, soil and air.
Jordan: We’ve recently begun learning about micro plastics, and they are everywhere. You know all those really cool, really tiny little parts of the universe? The invisible particles and microorganisms and molecules that we don’t see but that play their own role in keeping the world in harmony. Well micro plastics are just like them except their plastic, and we made them. We didn’t do it on purpose, but that doesn’t really matter. So where are they? How can we filter them out? What does ingesting this stuff do to people or to animals? How much of them are we eating or drinking? Or you’ve been breathing, right now? The good news is we’re finding answers to those questions. Bad news is the answers. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Rachel Chen is a writer who examined micro plastics for Chatelaine. Hi Rachel.
Jordan: Do you remember the first time you heard about micro plastics?
Rachel: So I actually didn’t really pay too much attention when I first heard about it but I used to work at the University of Toronto student newspaper diversity and one of our associate science editors was in the Rochman lab, which is the University of Toronto’s lab that studies anthropogenic pollution and she wrote an article for, like, our front page, and it didn’t really occur to me what it was but she was studying micro plastics in I think the Arctic and seeing how much was in our water, in the oceans, in the deep sea. So it didn’t register then, but I think most of us got it this year when the University of Victoria released the study and they were like, hey, you’re eating micro plastics, you are also inhaling micro plastics and I guess just all the zero waste content that I consume and then also just all the discussions about, like a plastic ban and also just having people in my life who were very careful about BPA free plastic stuff like that, which apparently doesn’t matter, since everything is a micro plastic that we’re breathing in anyway. Uh, that’s when it started to really hit me that like, oh, micro plastics are just gross and everywhere.
Jordan: It also hit me when I read in your piece that I am breathing them and inhaling them and eating them. Um, but explain if you can just what they are.
Rachel: Right. So a micro plastic is; Well, it’s defined as plastic particles that are less than five millimeters I believe, however, not to freak everyone out even more, they’re also nano plastics, which are 1 to 1000 nanometers in size.
Jordan: So invisible, I assume.
Rachel: Basically. But even though they’re small and they’re invisible, they still don’t biodegrade, they don’t disappear. They’re just really, really, really small pieces of plastic that are still floating around out there.
Jordan: Where do they come from?
Rachel: So they come from various sources. There’s plastic everywhere, everything’s made of plastic. When you think about it, you have textiles made out of plastic, you have your regular single use plastics that you think about when you think of plastic waste. But there are also things like microbeads inside, in like facial cleansers, and so sometimes they’re made to be that small, and then other times they become small from wear and tear overtime. For example, one big one; I interviewed a grad student from the Rochman lab, Sam Athe, and she talked about how microfibers are a big deal so when you wash your clothes, for example, when you pull the dryer filter out and there’s all that gunk on the filter, those are all microfibers and we catch them in dryers, but we don’t really catch them in washing machines anymore. So when you wash your clothing all of the micro plastics, all the little fibers that come out from your clothing go down the water drains, so you get micro plastics from all these different sources. On the bright side, microbeads were banned last year in 2018.
Jordan: Those are the things in, like facial products and stuff.
Rachel: So the stuff that, like exfoliates your face.
Jordan: Is this why they were banned?
Rachel: Yes. So they were banned because, um, because they realized, like, oh, are releasing microbeads, which is a former micro plastic into the ocean, and they don’t go away.
Jordan: So you wash your face with that stuff and scrub it in really hard, and then you rinse and it goes down the drain but those pieces; those tiny little beads of plastic are still there, and they don’t go anywhere.
Rachel: Exactly. And they don’t go away they just go straight into our water stream, and so when I was talking to the researchers, it was kind of quite frightening because they were talking about how we think that they’re; We have this naive human idea that there are pristine areas of nature where, you know, humans have never gone; they’re untouched like the Arctic, for example, but surprise they found micro plastics everywhere, it’s literally everywhere, even in the deep sea. So there’s no escaping plastic, like we have literally covered the earth with plastics which don’t come naturally, you know, plastic isn’t something that forms naturally, it’s something that we started using really heavily in the 1940’s-1950’s, and I did some digging, I didn’t get too far because this wasn’t a historic piece but like we’ve started talking about micro plastics since, like the 1950’s, we just didn’t realize they went into the oceans until about 2009. But that’s the really sad part is that we banned microbeads last year in 2018. The first study that I could find about microbeads, specifically from facial cleansers was from 2009, so it took us like nine years to act on it and then we didn’t really start studying micro plastics in the ocean as a problem until 2011. So now that it’s 2019 we’re like, oh, maybe we should ban single use plastics, so it’s like, well, what were you doing for the last seven years when scientists were like, hey, there were micro plastics in the ocean that could be a problem.
Jordan: How do they get so far a field in nature, even to places where you know, you’ve seen the images of a ton of our oceans covered in floating pieces of plastic so I understand that they’re in the oceans because plastic bags are in the oceans, but like we’re talking about places in the Arctic or places in nature where you would never find, like a Tupperware container but yet there are micro plastics. How do they get there?
Rachel: I guess I don’t have specifics on like how they get out there, but I think just the way that our water streams work, you have wastewater that goes into runoff that gets filtered through like whatever your municipality does to filter your water and then all the wastewater goes somewhere and all that wastewater goes out into like I don’t know, lakes, streams, oceans, and even if it’s been filtered, the real problem is that micro plastics are so small and our technology is so; Just the research on it is so new that we don’t have the technology to cleanup micro plastics, so….
Jordan: That was gonna be my next question. So when you turn on your tap, they’re coming back up through your tap?
Rachel: They’re coming back up through your tap. The researchers at U Vic that studied how much we’re consuming found that if you drink water bottles from; Single use plastic water bottles, you consume way more micro plastics; Maybe not way more, but you consume more micro plastics than someone who drinks from the tap but people who drink from the tap are still getting micro plastics. It’s in our water because we can’t trap it in filters, and I think that’s why it’s able to make it so far, we’re not stopping it.
Jordan: So if we are consuming them, do we know what they’re doing to us? Do we know if this is safe?
Rachel: Yes. So this kind of scary thing is that because, like I said, there was like this, like 7-9 year lag on us acting on oh, hey, warning there’s micro plastics. The research on what it does to humans is not really in existence yet, like people are maybe starting it but there haven’t really been any fully done peer reviewed studies and science takes some time, and then, after science takes time, policy takes time and takes us time to respond to it. So so far, we don’t know, basically, I guess, on an official level and even that does to humans, however, the researcher I interview from U Vic, so Garth Covington, he made a good point that he said, if micro plastics were doing something really bad to us the same way, maybe, like esposito’s or other toxins that we know about, we would probably know by now micro plastics were doing something really bad to us because we would have people getting sick or ill, right? And the fact that we don’t makes him less concerned about the chemical impact that they might have on us but the other researcher I spoke to, Sam, she pointed out that more likely, there are more physical dangers to the micro plastics but again, we don’t really have much evidence about it, like there has been research done on people getting micro plastics in their lungs permanently, and that’s kind of scary because you can’t really clear out your lungs way you would like clear out your digestive tract right? But there haven’t been any serious injuries from having it in your lungs but there are animals that have been affected.
Jordan: I’m gonna ask, have we studied it in animals?
Rachel: So there have been a few studies on animals and because plastics are known for sometimes being endocrine disruptors. So, for example, when you say avoid BPA plastic, that’s because you’re worried about it coming into your body as an endocrine disruptor, confusing your body into thinking that it’s estrogen, which is what’s wrong with BPA. They found that some of these micro plastics have gone into grown adult fish, and it’s affected how they express their genes, which is a bit more scientific than I could get into but the point is that it’s affected these fish chemically, which is kind of concerning for humans, because then you’re wondering, too, if I was supposed to avoid BPA should I just avoid all plastic? But the answer is also it’s already in you, you’re breathing it, you’re inhaling it, so you can’t avoid it. But again, like they were saying, we haven’t really seen major effects on humans, we haven’t seen like deathly effects, which is good because so far there’s nothing we can do about it, and then on a more physical level, micro plastics are also bad and I guess people care less about this from the onslaught because, you know, we get more worried when it’s affecting us and when it’s affecting animals. But you’re getting, like plankton that are eating micro plastics and then the same way that, like a giant whale filling itself up with plastic, as I’m sure everyone seen the photos of it by now, it tricks those organisms into thinking they’re full when they’re not, and then they don’t get enough nutrients and then they die. So while it’s tragic for whales to swallow plastic because, you know many of them are in danger, it’s not good when you know plankton swallows micro plastics either because they’re at the bottom of the food chain and we’re, like, up here at the top of the food chain which means that we’re very dependent on, you know, whether animals can eat and what else happens to the food chain. So all of this is kind of concerning about micro plastics, and there aren’t really many solutions for how they clean it up.
Jordan: So I understand how they end up in the water, and we drink them, and they’re in our digestive system but you mentioned that they are also probably in my lungs. How’d they get there?
Rachel: So you inhale them because they’re so small that they float in the air sometimes. For example, if you’re wearing a polyester shirt and you shake it and you see stuff coming off of it, that’s micro plastic.
Jordan: Just checking my shirt right now.
Rachel: Those are micro plastics flying up into your face and you are breathing them in and just like dust you know the same with, like any form of dust, you breathe in things.
Jordan: When you pull the lint trap out of the dryer?
Rachel: You breathe stuff in, and I think that’s what they were trying to say, the researcher that was like; Don’t be worried yet, like don’t panic yet about this. Health wise, it’s just that, like you breathe in stuff all the time, your nose traps it, your body has waste to trap and to clear it out, so our bodies are pretty incredible, and they do a pretty good job of that. It’s just weird to think about the fact that this is plastic that you’re breathing in.
Jordan: Right. Well, that’s what I wanted to get at is, obviously it’s disturbing to realize that you’re inhaling and eating small particles that don’t biodegrade. But what needs to happen next in order for us to figure out either A) If they’re not dangerous and we should just let it go and focus on bigger issues, what can we do?
Rachel: Yeah, so that’s the thing, micro plastics are just part of, I guess, like the whole plastic concern, the plastic pollution concerns. So it is definitely A) a form of pollution, and B) It is very disturbing to know that as much as we see those images of garbage in the ocean, and that’s really disturbing, most of the pollution in the ocean isn’t big pieces of plastic, it’s mostly micro plastics, but we don’t want to get deterred by the fact that climate change, which is different from pollution right? Climate change is a bigger concern when it comes to carbon emissions; Plastic pollution is just disgusting and makes you think about our human imprints and our human footprints but we don’t wanna get distracted by, and it is kind of concerning that it’s so easy for us to get distracted by it, because obviously, plastic pollution is much less political than carbon emissions, right? We’re very dependent on plastic, but it’s not like there are alternatives to plastic, and coming up with an alternative to plastic isn’t that controversial. For example, if I say I want a metal water bottle instead of a plastic water bottle, that’s not controversial, but if I say ban cars, go bike instead, that’s controversial, right? So that’s the issue here. It’s a lot easier for politicians to focus on like plastic bands, and it’s also a lot easier for people to agree on that. So we tend to get more movement in that kind of area rather than the ones that are more glaring like carbon emissions.
Jordan: Is anybody working on ways to protect us from this? I mean again, not trying to fear monger but you mentioned that our current water filters, for instance, don’t screen for this. Is there a plan to introduce ones that do?
Rachel: There are a couple of things; I mean, there are a couple of companies out there that are working on ways to like prevent MicroPlastics from making into our water streams. When I was talking to Sam from the University of Toronto, she talked about microfibers a lot and just to give you some more contacts, but not to freak you out more. One of the things zero waste bloggers tend to tell is hey, don’t buy plastic textiles like don’t buy polyester, buy natural fibers because they’re biodegradable. But Sam wanted to point out that that’s not necessarily a solution, either, because A) cotton has many issues already, just like in the way it’s produced but B) cotton and some other textiles; natural textiles are also very persistent so while micro plastics are the ones that are there for ever and ever and ever or just for a very long time, cotton also has micro fibers, and those microfibers also stay in the water streams for a long time. So we’re not; We’re still polluting when we use other textiles, but the good news here is that we don’t have to be like forget it, every time we wash your clothes like oh my God, I can’t wash my clothes, I’m polluting the water stream when I wash my clothes. It’s just, you know, maybe wash your clothes less often, like if you’re one of those people who think you have to wash your jeans every day, a lot of companies emphasize you don’t actually have wash them every single time you wear them. And if you think all of this is gross, there’s also companies out there who are producing products that are kind of like filters. So, like I said, you have a dryer filter but you don’t have a washing machine filter. But there’s a Canadian company out there that created a product called the Lint Lover. It captures 87% of microfibers released during a washing cycle, and then there’s also one called the Cora Ball, which is not a filter that is attached to your washing machine the way the lint lover is. The cora ball is the one that you throw in kind of like a dryer ball, and it captures like 26% of your microfibers. All these things are like not perfect, but they’re better than, you know, then just releasing things into the water stream. The other thing is there are also companies that are working to kind of reduce how much micro plastics they release. Again, I’m talking about fibers a lot, but just because I think those are the most visible changes, so Mech in Patagonia, I think, are both working with scientists to reduce how much microfibers they release. And you can also like avoid it in the textile industry by buying clothing that has like a tighter knit. So if you have a really loose sweater, that’s like shedding all the time, that’s shedding microfibers, micro plastics, if you have like clothing, that’s like, really tight and doesn’t shed, doesn’t pill that’s not releasing as many micro plastics. And I’m harping on textiles only because that’s kind of one of the most direct ways we release micro plastics into the universe, into the world, right? Like I don’t think most of us are sitting here like tapping on our microphones like trying to scrape off the plastic, going like oh microplastics out there.
Jordan: I’m gonna be terrified now that you told me this.
Rachel: I don’t want you to be terrified of it because as far as we’re concerned, it is not impacting our health, so far. There are people looking into it, and we’ll find out maybe in like 10 years, but nobody’s dying at the moment as far as we’re concerned.
Jordan: Well; And this is my last question for you is why do you think, then, that people do react this way? Because I’m sure that I’m not the only person that has had this reaction to your story, and when I shared it with the team here, we had the same reaction, and I know your colleagues at Chatelaine did too. So what is it about this? If there’s no huge proven health risk and these are things that just exist all around us and probably have for decades, why is it so terrifying to hear about them?
Rachel: I think it’s because plastics are so tangible. Like, for example, what I was saying earlier is that carbon emissions are the bigger problem right now, but other than when we see big gross clouds of smoke go up in the air, we don’t really think about the pollution that the air is doing, like maybe the summer will be hotter than usual because of climate change, which comes from, you know, greenhouse gases. But we don’t really have to see it, we just feel and go turn up the AC, versus micro plastics, the idea of eating your pollution, the idea of inhaling the pollution that you’ve created as a human, maybe not you specifically, but like just the way;
Jordan: Well probably me.
Rachel: And that’s true, all of us are kind of moving things around and making micro plastics come up. But the idea of actually having to eat and inhale your pollution is really jarring and really gross and even though we’re not necessarily dying from it we’re hearing this, like, gross factor of, like the consequences of what our lives are like, and also, if you start paying attention to where plastic is, you’ll realize it’s everywhere, like I didn’t pay attention that much before and then when I started trying to do more zero waste kind of things, I realize it’s in packaging. You know, when you buy food, there’s packaging, when you don’t buy food and you go on like I guess, like, get on your computer you realize your computers made of plastic and you realize your phone has plastic, and it’s just everywhere.
Jordan: Great. Well, now I’m just gonna look everywhere for invisible pieces of plastic.
Rachel: I think the big takeaway from this is that we just need to be more mindful consumers, and I know that the word mindful is thrown out a lot, but we really need to think about where our waste goes and when we buy something for convenience, like, for example, microbeads to exfoliate our faces, you know, we’re not thinking about the long term effects of that. We’re just thinking, I want my skin to be smoother, which is great. Do that but don’t do it with microbeads.
Jordan: Thanks, Rachel.
Rachel: Thanks for having me.
Jordan: Rachel Chen is a writer based in Toronto. That was The Big Story. For more, head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. As you may have gathered, we do talk about pollution on this podcast. You can also criticize us for daring to talk about climate change @thebigstoryfpn, or you can pat us on the back. We would love it if you’d rate us and review us, and, of course, subscribe for free wherever you get your podcasts, Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify. Claire Broussard is the lead producer of the Big Story, Ryan Clarke and Stephanie Phillips are our associate producers, Annalise Nielsen is our digital editor. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. Thanks for listening. We’ll talk on Monday.
Back to top of page