For The First Time, Microplastics Have Been Found In Fresh Fruits And Vegetables; How Does It Affect Us?

For The First Time, Microplastics Have Been Found In Fresh Fruits And Vegetables; How Does It Affect Us? Fruits and vegetables - representative image (Domokus/Pixabay)

Fresh fruits and vegetables hold a special place in our diets. People are regularly advised by the doctors to increase the intake of fresh fruits and vegetables in their diet and decrease the carbohydrate consumption.

This is because fresh fruits and vegetables have plenty of water, vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants.

However, a recent study published in the journal Environmental Research claims that some of the most commonly consumed fresh produce, including apples, carrots, pineapples, kale and cabbage, may be contaminated with high levels of plastic.

The study found that apples and carrots are among the most contaminated fruits and vegetables.

“For years we have known about plastic in crustaceans and fish, but this is the first time we have known about plastic getting into vegetables,” Plastic Soup Foundation’s founder Maria Westerbos was quoted as saying by In Habitat.

“If it is getting into vegetables, it is getting into everything that eats vegetables as well which means it is in our meat and dairy as well,” she added.

The report quoted another study published in the journal Nature Sustainability showing that the microplastics can be absorbed by the roots of lettuce. Once absorbed, they are transported to edible parts of the crops through the internal water and food transport systems.

What are microplastics?

According to US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a shred of plastic less than 5 millimetre in length in categorised as microplastic.

One source of microplastic in the environment is microbeads — small pieces of plastic manufactured by industries for specific purposes. For example, as exfoliator in facial cleansers, toothpaste, replacing the traditionally used natural ingredients like ground almonds, oatmeal, and pumice.

Microplastic scrubbers are also used to remove rust and paint from machinery, engines, and boat hulls.

Many countries including the United States have passed a law to prohibit the manufacture of rinse-off cosmetic products containing plastic microbeads.

However, the dominant source of microplastic in the environment is the regular plastic waste. Over time, the structural integrity of the plastic debris under the influence of various physical, biological and chemical actions due to wind, sunlight, rain etc. The plastic waste eventually reaches a size that is invisible to the naked eye.

Are microplastics harmful?

According to a 2017 IUCN report, microplastics are a bigger source of marine plastic pollution than the visible larger pieces of marine litter. They could contribute up to 30 per cent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Anywhere the scientists have looked, they have found the presence of microplastics — from aquatic animals who live at the bottom of the sea to the Arctic snow and Antarctic ice caps.

A recent study claimed the plastic particles in the oceans may outnumber zooplankton.

The so-called wet microplastic are transported via wet atmospheric conditions – disturbed by a storm and swept up into the atmosphere. These travel through the atmosphere and fall on the earth like rain or water particles.

Dry microplastics, on the other hand, mimicked the dispersal patterns of dust patterns and travelled long distances, often across continents.

The fact that these are not biodegradable, being produced at a fast rate (India’s plastic waste is growing at 25 times its GDP growth rate) and ingested by animals and absorbed by plants makes them potentially dangerous.

The small sized plastic is eaten by zooplankton and fish larvae which underpin the marine food chain. The insects, birds and bigger fish who eat these in turn ingest the plastic and then transfer it other animals, including humans, who consume them. This makes it a persistent organic pollutant.

Plastic accumulating in the stomachs of animals can suppress their appetite – known as the “dietary dilution effect”. Chemicals associated with the plastics like pthalates and brominated flame retardants have been detected in the tissues of animals. Seabirds have been found to have choked to death on microplastics.

Scientists have also linked microplastic particles to fluctuations in soil thermal properties, leading to losses in plant life.

While manufactured microbeads have been in the use for over half a century now, the research on harmful effects of microplastics on human and plant health is scarce. Scientists are only beginning to explore this area.

A lot of plastic in organisms might be in the nanosize, which makes it much harder to detect. Reportedly, micropastics are small enough to lodge into lung tissue, which causes lesions and, in some cases of routine exposure, asthma and cancer.

What can we do?

Since most of the microplastic waste comes from the regular plastic waste, focusing on the latter can address the problem to a great extent.

India has planned to “phase out” single-use plastic by 2022. The Union environment ministry reportedly has been working on a central legislation to ban single-use plastics Meanwhile, more than 20 states have notified a full or partial ban on such plastic, Maharashtra being the first.

The multilayered packaging is the most detrimental form of single-use plastic. It accounts for nearly 60 per cent of total branded plastics.

In 2016, the government introduced the Plastic Waste Management Rules brought in the extended producer responsibility clause for manufacturers and brand owners. It was earlier left to the discretion of the local bodies.

Compostable, biodegradable or even edible plastics made from various materials such as bagasse, corn starch, and grain flour, sea weeds etc. can be promoted as an alternative. More research is needed to overcome the limitations of scale and cost.

But the most pressing challenge remains effective treatment of the large volume of plastic waste that is turning landfills into land-hills.

Reportedly, India collects 62 million tonnes of municipal solid waste annually of which 80 per cent comes from the community bins, and only 25 per cent is processed/treated.

India should take into account the entire life-cycle of plastic — production, use, collection as waste and scientific management of that waste. Some steps that India can take:

  • waste segregation at source

  • behavioural change

  • different types of plastics should be marked with numerical symbols (1,2,3,4) to facilitate recycling

  • scientific management; landfills should be repositories of last resort

  • regularisation, semi-formalisation, workforce training of plastic waste recycling units

  • proper implementation of Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016, especially extended producer responsibility, and plugging loopholes

  • capacity building of local bodies

The mantra should be — reduction, reuse, recycle, recovery, and scientific management. India can learn from the success stories of cities like Surat, Rajkot, Pune, Pammel, Chandigarh and Alappuzha.

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