This article is part of our “Youth Head Delegate Blog Series” — written by our YHDs!
By Erik W.
Plastic is everywhere in our lives, visible and invisible. We are most familiar with plastics’ products—plastic bags, plastic straws, plastic balloons, plastic toys—but where these disposable products go we rarely know or care. Without any of us noticing, these plastics can slip through water treatment systems and landfills, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, but taking thousands of years to biodegrade. These tiny plastic particles can then spread across our ecosystems, poisoning anything they come into contact with. And that’s our topic today: Nanoplastics.
First off, let’s talk about what these nanoplastics are and where they come from. Currently, there is no strict definition yet (Bergmann, Gutow, & Klages, 2015, pp. 329-344), so let’s define nanoplastics as plastics with one dimension (length, width, or height) less than one micrometer (μm) or 10-6 m. That’s the what down, but you might be wondering where they come from. Well, plastics are used everywhere: in fact, over 280 million tons were created in 2011, and it is expected that this number will rise by 4% each year (PlasticsEurope, EuPC, EuPR, & EPRO, 2012.). In addition to the breakdown of these large plastics, nanoplastics are also directly created through things such as the spillage of nanoplastics in plastic plants and when airbrushing (João, Patrícia, Armando, & Teresa, 2016). Nanoplastics are everywhere in our ecosystems, so let’s discuss the harms of such a seemingly small product.
Nanoplastics have been shown to accumulate in various organs, inhibiting their functions, a well as being directly correlated to the decrease of survival rate of a species (Manabe, Tatarazako, & Kinoshita, 2011, pp. 576-581). In addition, nanoplastics may cause reduced vigor as well as slowing down the maturing process of individuals and ovulation process (João et al, 2016). Plus, these plastics frequently come with nanoplasticides, which are compounds added to plastics to make them more flexible. However, nanoplasticides are normally not chemically bound to the plastics, allowing them to easily leach from the plastics when they break down (João et al, 2016). This is dangerous because these materials are dissolvable in fat, so they can easily penetrate our membranes through first the penetration of the membranes of the food we eat (Bieber, Figge, & Koch, 1985, pp. 113-124). Within animal cells, these nanoplasticides are known to affect intracellular reactions and induce toxic effects (Hammer, Kraak, & Parsons, 2012, pp. 1-44), which is, for clear and obvious reasons, immensely dangerous.
As can be seen from the information, plastics that we can see everyday are dangerous enough—we all know the stories of turtles trapped in plastic and birds full of plastic—but when these plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces, they don’t just disappear: they become even more deadly.