Microplastics – a global risk

Waste material being discharged into the environment through human activities is a common source of global risk.

Microplastics  everywhere

We depend on the environment. Recently, pollution resulting from plastic has been hotly debated. This is not a new problem – the plastic littering the oceans was noticed decades ago – but the focus has shifted to all the sources and waste degradation in the oceans and in other environments.

It is no longer a question of local pollution. The resulting microplastics are ubiquitous. Through major mechanisms of the globe such as rivers, ocean currents and winds, microplastic particles end up in the food chain. In recent studies they have been found in all kinds of bottled water, in spring water pumped from the ground, in fish and other animals and in the soil that produces our food. And it is not only waste that is spreading and disintegrating.

Many products like cosmetics contain microbeads that are washed directly into drainage systems. This also includes the particles released from synthetic materials in ordinary washing machines.

It was estimated last year that the volume of microplastics added over a 12-month period to the farmlands of Europe would be between 63,000 and 430,000 tonnes.

Many worrying signs

The effects on wildlife, soil and on humans have been researched but this research is at an early stage. There is no direct evidence of the short or long-term effects on human health. But there are many worrying signs indicating that microplastics are not supposed to be in the digestive organs of humans or animals. Microplastics cause clear changes in the functions of microbes, insects and other small animals and then continue through the food chain.

This is not a risk that can be directly addressed by individual companies or persons. The risk is systemic and is about the way we use plastics in products, packaging and for other use purposes. Globally, about 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced annually meaning that about 8% of oil production is used for this purpose. Most of it is discarded as waste. Plastic is a very stable material and will stay
in the environment for centuries.

It is still difficult to say how the problem of plastic in the ocean will be addressed as there is controversy surrounding the most suitable approach.

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Picture of Matti Sjögren

Matti Sjögren

Nordic Liability Risk Management Specialist, If