PLASTIC fantastic?

Can you visualise 1.5 million tons of plastic? It’s quite a number isn’t it? I can’t begin to picture what that could possibly look like. Would 1.5 million tons fill Wembley stadium, several times over? If that is challenging your imagination, ponder this, 1.5 million tons was just the amount of plastic we produced in the year 1959. Which was itself 64 years ago. Now try and visualise 300+ million tons, because that’s what we now produce in a single year.

Some of these plastics end up as durable products with a long shelf life. But a lot is packaging, and ‘single use’ convenience products, destined to be chucked in the waste – or the recycling bin – within minutes of being used. There is an ugly global trade in recycling plastic waste, with the West exporting most of the problem to Turkey and South-east Asia, as the carbon footprint of incinerating our plastics wrecks our carbon emissions targets.

In truth, only a small percentage gets recycled and the current landfill destination for 85% of the world’s throw away plastic is only one part of the larger pollution problem. When we cast our land-based eyes to the marine environment, the largest portion of plastic nanoparticles that are polluting our oceans, stems from the laundering of synthetic clothes, and the abrasion of tyres while driving.

More studies and evidence of human exposure has been published since I wrote previously about nanoplastics found in bottled and tap water, with concern growing for the health consequences, because these particulates have been shown to have two entry routes into our physiology.

We ingest them via food and water, we absorb them through our skin and we breathe them in too.

Plastic nanoparticles are now added to lipstick and eye makeup to improve their feel and finish.  Sunscreens, toothpastes, face scrubs, and even shower gels have them added for the cleansing and exfoliating properties. Once washed off, these nanoplastics end up in the sewage sludge of wastewater treatment plants, often destined for fertilising agricultural land, or recycled back as treated water.

A study conducted by the World Economic Forum asked residents of 32 homes across Sydney, Australia, to catch dust particles in a special glass dish. When researchers analysed the resulting dust particles, they found 39% of them were nanoplastics. Parisian researchers at University Paris-Est Créteil  have also reported microplastic particles falling from the air, depositing somewhere between 3 – 10  tonnes of fibres on the city per year, adding to the diverse particulate matter that all city dwellers apparently inhale. Breathing through the mouth is thought to increase the quantity reaching the lungs.

People spend up to 90% of their time indoors and therefore the greatest risk of exposure to microplastics could be in the home.

Removing synthetic carpets from the home may seem one solution, but hard floors also contribute to the problem, as the synthetic coating applied to most hard flooring degrades with constant tread over time, producing polyvinyl fibres in house dust. Do we know if these omnipresent, inhaled nanoplastic fibres are reaching the deeper recesses of our lungs and crossing into our circulation? We know once swallowed they can cross gut epithelial tissue, and they have now been detected in human placentas and breast milk, proving they do get in to circulation. Other research has shown that bottle-fed babies are likely to be ingesting nanoplastic matter, and even cow’s milk is contaminated.

Another pilot study collected heart tissue samples from different regions of the heart, in 15 patients while they were undergoing heart surgeries, and found tens to thousands of nanoplastic particles in each sample. Common plastics from single-use beverage bottles were common, alongside those introduced during the surgery itself, like PVC particles of intravenous solution bags.

So, if our bodies absorb nanoplastics across our mucosal membranes, and get transported into our hearts (and potentially other organs – like the brain) via the bloodstream, what are the consequences on these organs and overall health?

Acute exposure to Micro-plastics Induced Changes in Behaviour and Inflammation in Young and Old Mice

This study published in 2023 is worrying because over the course of 3 weeks exposure to nanoplastics via drinking water, a cohort of young and old mice began to exhibit behavioural change not dissimilar to dementia symptoms in humans. The symptoms were most pronounced in the older mice, and dissections at the end of the study revealed bioaccumulation of plastic particulate in every major mouse organ, including the brain.

Clearly it could take decades to reduce and reverse the global pollution of micro and nanoplastics. Avoiding single use plastic is something we can each take responsibility for, and plans are afoot in the UK to reverse the current dependence on export as a strategy for dealing with our plastic waste.

More STRATEGIES to reduce exposure:

  • An obvious one is to regularly clean/vacuum, especially if you have young children who spend more time on the floor, (the quantity they inhale relative to their small size makes it a greater exposure).
  • Buy clothing made from natural fibres.
  • Avoid tumble-driers, air-dry your washed clothing.
  • Wash clothing less – sometimes hanging in fresh air will suffice.
  • Use shorter wash cycles with less water.
  • Avoid single use plastics: support a zero-waste grocery store; avoid using plastic shopping bags.
  • Avoid using disposable takeaway cups, plastic water bottles and straws.
  • Buy plastic-free cosmetics: read the small print and avoid Polyethylene,(PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene terephthalate, a form of polyester (PET or PETE), Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), Nylon.
  • Minimise eating Shellfish which are ‘bottom-feeders’ and exposed to a lot of oceanic plastic.
  • Use public transport more, to minimise car rubber tyre erosion
  • Avoid microwaving food in plastic containers, the heat causes plastic to leach in to the food. If a product is labelled ‘microwave safe’, it means the container won’t melt in the microwave, not that it won’t transfer chemicals to your food.
  • Consider investing in a good quality water filter in your kitchen.

All in all, many of these suggestions are pretty small do-able steps, and if only a few were adopted regularly by enough people, maybe that 300+ million tons would start to decrease, and the volume of oceanic microparticles would reduce. Supporting a zero packaging store is a good place to start. Of course it takes effort, it’s inconvenient, it’s easier to just fill the Supermarket trolley with all your familiar, habitual products but with packaging being consistently the main source of plastic waste during the last 4 decades reaching 142 million tons in 2019, this could be a new year resolution of behavioural change that harks back to the way our grandparents happily shopped all the time.

What price behaviour change for the next generation?

We are living in the plasticene, and it’s not just a trash problem, it’s becoming crystal clear that plastic nanoparticles infiltrate and bioaccumulate in all our body tissues. They cross the placenta and appear in breast milk, so perhaps the precautionary principle should be applied and the priority of advice should focus on the newest, most vulnerable generation: that along with taking folic acid, women seeking to become pregnant especially need to avoid food and drink packaged in plastics, and cosmetics and toothpastes containing microplastics. Once babies are born, pumped breast milk should not be stored in plastic bags that allow nanoparticles to migrate into the milk and formula milk is also best kept in glass containers.

“Our reliance on plastics could be the biggest gamble in the story of human health, in history.” Kathleen Rogers President, EARTHDAY.ORG


Julien Boucher & Damien Friot (2017) Primary Microplastics in the Oceans: a Global Evaluation of Sources. International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Patrick Taylor M (2021) World Economic Forum. Our homes are full of harmful microplastics. Here’s how to minimise the risk.

Gaspar L et al., (2023) Acute Exposure to Microplastics Induced Changes in Behaviour and Inflammation in Young and Old Mice. Int Journal of Molecular Sciences 1;24(15):12308

Mandard S (2023) ‘Today, 40 kilos of plastic rain are expected’: The plastic weather forecast comes to Paris. Le Monde

British Plastics Federation (2023) Recycling Roadmap

Liu, S., Lin, G., Liu, X., et al. (2022). Detection of various microplastics in placentas, meconium, infant feces, breastmilk and infant formula: A pilot prospective study. Science of the Total Environment.


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