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Microplastics; Macro Actors of the Plasticene

"Plasticene Epoch" is now becoming a reality, taking a leading role as yet another synthetic product of humanity's self-centered activities. Plastics are now so widespread that geologists deem them to be a key geological indicator of the "Plasticene Epoch," more well-known as the Anthropocene (Ross, 2018). Corcoran et al. (2014) reported the appearance of a new rock, "plastiglomerate," formed in campfires that melted the plastic washed up on the beach.

Plastiglomerate from Kamilo Beach (Hawaii, USA). Photo by Patricia Corcoran, University of Western Ontario

However, plastics go way beyond the visible scale to micro and nanoscales, popularly known as microplastics. Microplastics are categorized as primary and secondary, depending on how they are produced. Primary microplastics are intentionally produced small, like the ones in skincare products. On the other hand, secondary microplastics are consequences of the breakdown of discarded plastics. Although research can not determine the exact reach of microplastics, they are in the air, salt, skincare products, our food and water, oceans, soil, and even in space (Parker, 2021)!

Microplastics are indeed ubiquitous, but to what extent are they harmful? Marine organisms are known to be severely affected by microplastics: studies find that microplastics disrupt reproductive systems, stunt growth, diminish appetite, cause tissue inflammation and liver damage, and alter feeding behavior in marine organisms (Parker, 2021). Soil is not spared from harm either; plastic fragments change the soil's chemistry and structure. Moreover, additives in the plastics are linked to soil contamination, and the crops grown in these soils have a lower yield, height, and root weight. Microplastics have also been detected in the atmosphere (Prata, 2018), increasing possible exposure and ingestion pathways for all organisms.

Fran Crowe. "Found Objects." A piece created for the Anchorage Museum exhibition "Gyre: The Plastic Ocean" in 2014 made of collected debris near the artist's home as an "archaeological dig."

Indeed, everything we touch responds back. In Plasticene, we see how new pathways and relationships between the ecosystem and human-made pollution are forced (Montagu, 2022). Being ultimately a part of the natural ecosystem and the producers of plastic pollution, we are not spared from the harm of microplastics.

Yoldas, P. Stomaximus: plastivore digestive organ. (2014). An Ecosystem of Excess, " – the Pacific Ocean polluted by tons of plastic garbage – generates an ecosystem of speculative life forms. Exhibition at the Schering Stiftung project space.

Scientists are still investigating the central question: "What harm does ingesting microplastics have on human health?" Determining the amount of exposure to microplastics through research focused on quantifying the number of diverse microplastics is critical to assess harm and propose solutions. Although this is a challenging task, considering the minute scales microplastics come in, and the fact that they are everywhere, studies show that the uptake of plastics by humans is now evident (Campanale et al., 2020). In a recent study, 0.44 Microplastics/g of nano and microplastics were found in sugar, 0.11 MPs/g were found in salt, 0.03 MPs/g were found in alcohol, and 0.09 MPs/g were found in bottled water. Humans also intake approximately 80 g per day of microplastics from plants that accumulate microplastics through uptake from polluted soil (Ebere et al., 2019). A portion of the plastic taken into the body is absorbed, and a part of smaller microplastics could enter the organs and cell membranes, passing through the blood-brain barrier and even the placenta (Barboza et al., 2018). Ingested microplastics could also enter the gastrointestinal tract.

Such spread and intake of microplastics in cells of vital organs could lead to respiratory distress, cytotoxic and inflammatory effects, and autoimmune diseases (Prata, 2018b). The shape, composition (like additives), and hydrophobicity of microplastics are thought to be the reason for the cells' sensitivity to microplastics (MPs). In a study, mice were orally administered tiny microplastics for seven days, and it was found that they could make their way through the blood-brain barrier, where they accumulated in the microglial cells (via phagocytosis)- which are vital for the maintenance of the nervous system. The accumulation of MPs disturbed the proliferation of the microglial cells, caused changes in their morphology, and ultimately led to apoptosis or programmed cell death (Kwon et al., 2022).

Taking a holistic stance, the Anthropocene is an epoch distinguished by the centralization of the human species. Plasticene is indeed a consequence of the ideologies underlying the construction of the Anthropocene, led by materialism. Although the importance of the human species characterizes Anthropocene, it also comes with recognizing the dependence and precariousness of humans (Raffnsøe, 2016). This dependence could clearly be seen in the case of microplastics- where environmental health is inevitably and inextricably linked to human health. As described above, we can clearly see how human actions turn back and harm us, ourselves, and how this turns into a loop of excessive production followed by attempts to fix harm. A better understanding of microplastics' exposure and uptake levels is crucial to accurately disclose their potential toxicological mechanisms and their possible health effects (Wright & Kelly, 2017). Individual consciousness, action on larger scales, logical policies for individuals, and, crucially, industries are needed to solve the macro issue of microplastics. More philosophically speaking, the materialist culture distinguishing the Anthropocene and, thus, the Plasticene should be rethought on individual and organizational scales.

Artwork: Steve McPherson

Writer: Kevser Civek

Editor: Hammad Qazi


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