Microplastics: an unseen & deadly poison

Micro level contamination yields tremendous hidden costs to communities, the environment and food chain systems. Though often not seen by the human eye, fragmented microplastic pieces are poison to our soils | water microbial communities as well as to fish, mammals, birds and most all life forms.

Prominent organizations - Plastic Pollution Coalition, Algalita and The 5 Gyres Institute (5 Gyres) to name several - are dedicated to researching and educating on the plastic pollution crisis in our oceans and waterways. The facts from 5 Gyers are chilling:

8 MILLION METRIC TONS
The amount of plastic that enters the ocean each year.
15-51 TRILLION
The estimated number of pieces of plastic floating on the ocean surface.
HYDROPHOBIC
Once in our waterways, plastics act as sponges, soaking up all the chemicals – like PCB, DDT – that don’t mix with salt water.
FISH FOOD
Toxic-laden plastics look super tasty to fish. And we all know fish look tasty to us. 

Microplastics violate the time-perfected Earth's recycling system. Fragmentation, biodegradability and compostability are the foundation of the Earth's recycling system:

  • Fragmentation – first step in the biodegradation process, in which organic matter is broken down into microscopic fragments.
  • Biodegradability – complete microbial assimilation of the fragmented product as a food source by the soil & water microorganisms.
  • Compostability – complete assimilation within 180 days in an industrial compost environment.
Note the difference between biodegradability and compostibility is TIME. By definition, material decomposes within 180 days while bio-degradation may take as long as millions of years.

Due to the fragmentation process, ocean plastic pollution is now referred to as plastic smog. Clean-up is challenging to impossible due to the microscopic size of the plastic. Aquatic life consumes the fragmented plastic; larger pieces remain within the digestive tract and smaller ones integrate within the flesh. Thus, plastic enters the human food system!

Soils are also contaminated with microplastics. Per EcoCycle | Wood's End 2011 Study, Should Plastic Coated Materials be Allowed in Materials Collected for Composting?:

"This study showed conclusively that micro-plastic fragments were shred from all plastic coated samples, whether single or double-coated. This means any plastic-coated paper product, even those that are partially screened out during the composting process, is contaminating the finished compost with plastics particles.

Beyond the prolific plastic used in commercial agriculture, single-use food and beverage packaging is a major culprit in soil microplastic pollution. Ei promotes the commercial collection of food waste for compost where packaging is prominent in post-consumer food waste streams.

In 2015 the Ei SMAT - Sustainable Materials ACTION Team - developed the Compostable Food & Beverage Packaging Education Session to educate foodservice operators on the importance of using BPI-Certified Compostable single-use packaging. The Sustainable Food Court Initiative - Georgia World Congress Center hosted the first session to educate Levy Restaurants, their campus foodservice operator, on compostable packaging. 

The ZWA Blog article Compostable F&B Packaging: integral to zero waste programs and soil rebuilding, is an overview of the session and the important role packaging plays in zero waste programs; the Ei FB album, 04-08-15 Compostable F&B Packaging Education Session, gives a pictorial recap. Below is an overview of the presentation. 

SMAT Compostable Packaging Educational Overview SMAT Compostable Packaging Educational Overview (9309 KB)

At the 2016 National Zero Waste Business Conference, Ei Partner Rick Lombardo with NaturTec teamed with 5 Gyres Director of Global Partnerships & Community Engagement Lia Colabella for an empowering Ei-hosted Macro Cost of Micro Contamination panel. SUCCESS: a prominent attendee confided "this was the BEST conference panel - I learned so much and I appreciate gaining visibility to such important issues!

Ei commits to work with industry leaders on preventing further microplastic contamination within the soils and waterways. A main focus is promoting commercial food waste compost manufacturing supported by the use of compostable food and beverage packaging. In addition, soil testing within Urban Carbon Sink Pilots will reveal any plastic contamination within the pilot compost and soil.