Microplastics Pose a Big Problem

By Jenevra Wetmore

I have a cup of black English breakfast tea with a splash of milk every morning. I have been reliably drinking the same brand of black tea since college, and drank it in middle and high school as well, though less frequently. Imagine my dismay when I recently discovered that the teabags are partially made of plastic. I had read an article about the prevalence of microplastics in our world, and saw that one of the places they’re commonly found is in tea bags. I googled the tea company I buy from, but there wasn’t clear information online, so I emailed them directly: what were the tea bags made of? They responded that, while the tissue itself is made of plant-based fibers, the “heat sealable” fibers are made of thermoplastics. Plastic holds the two sides of the teabag together. 

Our world is increasingly full of single-use plastics (SUPs) that are intended to be used once for a short period of time and then thrown away. These SUPs can then become microplastics. Microplastic is defined as a small piece of plastic, less than 5 mm (0.2 inch) in length, that occurs in the environment as a consequence of plastic pollution. These plastics come from a variety of sources, including fragments that erode from car tires, plastics that shed from clothing, microbeads in personal care products, or any aging plastic object that is exposed to the sun’s UV radiation or ocean waves.

In our modern era microplastics are found throughout the natural world. They are in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat—children and adults might ingest or breathe in anywhere from dozens to more than 100,000 microplastic specks each day. How these particles effect human health is not yet thoroughly understood, but plastics are known to contain dangerous chemical substances—in the lab microplastics have been shown to cause damage to human cells. Studies have found microplastics in our blood and deep in our lungs, as well as in human placentas.

Microplastics also effect wildlife—they are found in the stomachs of animals, particularly marine life, from plankton to whales. In 2012, the Convention on Biological Diversity in Montreal declared that all seven sea turtle species, 45 percent of marine mammal species, and 21 percent of seabird species were affected by eating or becoming entangled in plastic. When ingested, plastics can block the gastrointestinal tract or cause cuts and irritation. Plastic provides no nutrition, so animals that consume it may have a false sense of fullness. There are many nuances to how microplastic affects different species, including what type of plastic they are exposed to, the size of the particles, and the concentration of microplastic.

Tea bags are really just the start when it comes to the ways we are exposed to micro plastics, but they’re also a good starting point if you’re looking to reduce your exposure to these plastics. Steeping a single plastic teabag at brewing temperature (95 °C) releases approximately 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nanoplastics into a single cup of the beverage. This data is for a plastic teabag, not the kind made of mixed materials that I have been using– I could not find good data on those. Cutting out teabags made with any type of plastic, and using loose leaf tea instead will limit your exposure. Other tips to avoid microplastic include microwaving food in ceramic or glass containers; BPA and phthalates in plastic leach more easily into food when heated. Avoiding store-bought plastic water bottles and takeaway cups will also help you avoid microplastics. 

Of course, the best way to avoid microplastics is to reduce or eliminate your use of plastics altogether. Use reusable take out containers, thermoses, tote bags, straws, you name it! You can also use refillable bottles for personal care products and bulk foods. If you buy any plastic, pay attention to what number it is. Look at the recycling triangle, often found on the bottom, to check. Plastics that have a #1 or #2 must be recycled in Vermont, and are generally the most commonly recycled plastics. Avoid other numbers when possible, and always avoid black plastic, which cannot be recycled in Vermont. 

According to the IUCN, at least 14 million tons of plastic are introduced into marine ecosystems each year. Over time, larger pieces of plastic are fragmented into countless, nearly microscopic bits of microplastic, which are now endemic to oceans, and the bodies of marine organisms, throughout the world.   Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash

What Can You Do?

  • Visit https://dec.vermont.gov/content/how-can-i-waste-less for ideas on how to use less plastic
  • Pick up litter and participate in Green Up Day (May 6, 2023) to reduce plastic pollution: greenupvermont.org
  • Learn what materials can and cannot be recycled by visiting the Greater Upper Valley Solid Waste Management District’s website, where there is an A-Z guide of what to do with different materials: www.guvswmd.org
  • Register to watch the free film screening of A Plastic Ocean April 24th-28th, hosted by Sustainable Woodstock and Pentangles Arts as part of our Climate Change & Sustainability Film Series: plasticocean.eventbrite.com


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