Israel’s coastline is covered with more than two tons of microplastics, which pollute the seawater, beaches, rivers, and other parts of the environment, according to a new study from Tel Aviv University and the Mediterranean Sea Research Center of Israel.
The contamination, which results from plastic consumer products, packaging, plastic recycling, and industrial waste breaking down into tiny pieces, as well as sometimes from the plastic recycling process, is especially concentrated around Tel Aviv and Hadera.
The findings are alarming, as microplastics pose a serious risk to both environment and human health. Unfortunately, this crisis is not limited to Israel or the Mediterranean. This is a global problem; microplastic contamination affects almost all bodies of water and has been found in drinking water, rainwater, and even our bodies. And it is only getting worse as plastic use increases around the world.
Starting in the 1960s, scientists began finding microplastics in fish off Israel’s coast, as well as in many other parts of the world. But in recent years, the concentrations of these particles have increased, and have been found in almost every environment, where they threaten animals’ health, as well as plants and other organisms, potentially disrupting entire ecosystems.
In turn, these microplastics in the environment are increasingly inhaled and ingested by people: The air in typical homes was found to contain microplastics, and these dangerous particles have been found in numerous food items, including salt, seafood, and fresh fruits and vegetables, leading to serious health concerns. Scientists have identified microplastics in human blood and deep inside patients’ lungs. Another recent disturbing discovery was the finding of microplastics in the placentas of unborn babies, which researchers say could have adverse long-term health effects on infants.
It is clear that we must find a solution to plastic pollution. Current solutions, including recycling, are not working, especially for thin, flexible plastic. In fact, only about 9% of plastic produced is ever recycled globally. In Israel, that figure is as low as 7%. This isn’t because people aren’t trying; many consumers drop plastic into recycling bins every day. But many of these items don’t actually get recycled because they are too dirty or mixed with other products, or the process is not worth it economically. In fact, recycled plastic often costs more than new plastic. In addition, the recycling process itself can produce microplastic, as tiny pieces of plastic are released into water sources as part of the waste from many recycling plants. Overall, there is a lack of suitable infrastructure for plastic waste.
Cutting back on plastic use is no doubt the number one way to reduce microplastic pollution. But cutting down on plastic also poses challenges, as flexible plastic, especially, is a valuable, durable, and lightweight material that works well for essential and life-supporting roles, including keeping foods fresh and clean in transit, and packaging sterile equipment in hospitals.
While it is simple and reasonable for consumers to swap disposal plastic shopping bags for reusable cloth ones, such a shift is more complicated when it comes to shipping goods or keeping products dry, clean, or sterile, especially food. This is where the growing number of emerging alternative materials, such as compostable plastic, can play a role. Compostable plastic is made from polymers that break down when mixed with other organic waste, including fruit and vegetable scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, and yard trimming.
Studies have shown that compostable plastic, when disposed of properly after reading the labelling carefully, breaks down well in facilities that process biowaste and organic matter.
In addition to not leaving behind microplastics when it breaks down, a compostable plastic bag can also contribute to nourishing the earth and combating the effects of climate change. This is because the end product of the composting process is compost, a rich soil that will reduce our carbon footprint, and help agricultural fields retain more water and produce higher volumes of crops required to feed our growing global population.
Compostable plastics, along with other steps, like reducing overall plastic use, can play a key role in creating a circular economy for plastics. That is why encouraging composting through education and infrastructure, like easy consumer access to composting facilities, will go far in the battle against microplastics. We must act now to protect our health, our local beaches and waterways, and the entire planet.
Written by Daphna Nissenbaum, CEO and CO-founder of TIPA Corp.