It’s no secret that our ever-growing reliance on plastic has huge implications for the planet we inhabit.
It’s said that over one million animals are killed due to its presence in the ocean each year – a figure that is hardly surprising considering the estimated 5.25 trillion plastic particles floating around the world. UK supermarkets are big contributors too – producing almost 1m tons of plastic packaging each year.
What hasn’t hit the headlines quite so regularly is the damage it could be causing humans.
This is soon set to change, with researchers from the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast charged with investigating the precise damage that nano and microplastics are causing.
What are microplastics?
Microplastics come from a range of everyday items through the breakdown of large plastic waste in bottles, shopping bags and industrial waste.They also come in the form of microbeads – small, manufactured plastic beads used in health and beauty products.
Dr Cuong Cao, a co-lead on the research project, says preliminary data suggests plastic can change our endocrine hormone, which regulate bodily functions like metabolism.
“Nowadays, plastics are everywhere,” Cao tells Food Spark. “They have recently been found in our soil, tap water, bottled water, beer and even in the air we breathe.”
In fact, a recent study from the University of Victoria in Canada found that the average US man could be ingesting 52,000 microplastic pieces each year through a recommended diet of seafood, sugars, salt and beef.
There is also growing concern that plastics in the ocean could be entering the food chain as microscopic particles are absorbed by fish and molluscs, while other food could be contaminated during production or from plastic packaging, including the likes of honey and sea salt.
Yet plastics have risen to dominate everyday lives due to their versatility, ease of use and low cost, and their prevalence won’t stop here. By 2050, it is anticipated that plastic production will triple.
“No one knows what that is doing to our health,” says Cao.“Plastic is very durable and takes hundreds of years to degrade naturally. When that happens, they become nano and microplastic. As the name suggests, the plastics become extremely small, and at that size, are capable of penetrating human skin cells.”
Studies have found microplastics everywhere in the environment too from UK lakes and rivers, US groundwater, in the Pyrenees and Rocky Mountains, as well as the deepest reaches of the ocean.
The researchers, working as part of an international consortium led by Aston University, have been commissioned for an initial four-year project, but Cao expects it to last for 10 years.
The initial four-year plan will see the development of three technological concepts in the three stages.
The first will be spent on sample manipulation, allowing scientists to separate micro and nano plastics in water. The second phase will be identifying the origins and the levels of concentration in water and food, while the final section will work to understand the effects of those plastics on human health.
New product testing
The main objective of the research project is to educate the public and raise awareness of the damage we are doing to ourselves, notes Cao.
“If [the production] is to triple, it becomes a global threat to both human health and the environment,” he comments. “We are going to deliver scientific evidence and figures to prove just how negative the effects are so that we change the behaviours of the consumer.”
To address this increasingly serious problem, the European Commission will issue new drinking water legislation, due to be published in 2019, stating that water companies will need to measure concentrations of microplastics. According to Cao, it will apply to “all water-based food and drink” and due to the costs involved, he remains cautious.
“While in theory we welcome this legislation, in practical terms there are huge financial and resources implications that could prevent its implementation,” he explains. “Highly-skilled professionals will be required to operate the high-tech equipment needed to run these tests successfully if we are to meet these standard measurements.”
At present, spectroscopy technology is required for the tests to be suitably thorough, with one piece of equipment setting companies back over £200,000. As such, it’s not applicable for onsite detection of micro and nano plastics in the factory.
“The producers need to send each product to the lab for testing,” reveals Cao. “So as part of our project, we are going to attempt to develop an innovative technology platform so that this can be easy to use and low cost, so that the food and drink producers can test their product for micro and nano plastic onsite. They won't need to transport their sample back to the central lab for the testing.
“Once this is implemented, they can speed up the production line and bring their products to market much more quickly.”