As a society, we’ve come to rely on using synthetic materials in so many facets of our lives. Think about all the plastic products you’ve touched already today, and you can see how quickly they add up: phone case, carpet, shirt, toothbrush, food wrap, milk jug, pen…the list goes on and on. Through our use of every one of those innumerable products in our daily lives, the plastic breaks down or wears into smaller and smaller pieces until it reaches microplastic form. Over the past several years there has been a significant increase in research to understand the amount of microplastics found in the environment, and what effects they may have on our bodies and the environment as a whole. However, much is still unknown. Given that our current knowledge base and associated regulations are limited, the best course of action to address microplastics remains unclear.
Now that Pandora’s box has been opened, our global society will never be able to completely eliminate microplastics. Although there is no “one size fits all” treatment, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t worthwhile steps we can take to minimize the effects microplastics have on the environment. To illustrate this point, we can draw parallels between microplastics management and something we all deal with regularly—healthcare.
One strategy that can be used in both healthcare and microplastics management is prevention. Just as preventative healthcare is critical in reducing the chance that health problems arise, preventative plastics management can protect the environment by minimizing the amount of microplastics generated in the first place. For example, one can ward off health problems by establishing a lifestyle that consists of a healthy diet and regular exercise. These proactive routines are comparable to reducing overall production of plastic products and supporting product reuse or refill programs. Another example is how a person’s overall health can be significantly improved by avoiding or quitting excessive habits like smoking, drinking alcohol, or drug use. Similarly, the risks associated with microplastic pollution can be prevented by initiatives that cut off plastic reliance, such as passing laws that ban single use plastic products.
Unlike preventative measures, symptom management strategies may not address the source of the problem itself, but they can keep the problem at bay and manage the associated effects. Medication is often prescribed to manage symptoms of various health conditions. Discharge management, such as improving microplastics removal rates from wastewater treatment plants, similarly attempts to remediate the problem by providing stopgap measures between source and effect. Therapy is another tactic that falls under the umbrella of symptom management, whether it be physical therapy to assist in healing injuries or psychotherapy to manage mental health. For microplastics, proper recycling can similarly “rehabilitate” existing plastic materials, and identifying material substitutions for typical plastic products can provide better alternatives than we currently have.
While methods such as prevention and symptom management can be incredibly effective and efficient, there are times when targeted action is needed. Typically, when surgery is recommended to a patient, the goal of the procedure is to either completely fix the health issue or attempt to make it more manageable by addressing it at the site. Remediation should be thought of in the same way as surgery; the contamination is being treated at the exact site where it is occurring so that the contamination can be eliminated or at least significantly reduced. Because these targeted action options are so invasive and resource intensive, they should be implemented in selective situations where they are truly essential.
Implementing these techniques of prevention, symptom management, and targeted action can also cause synergistic effects. For example, a person who is receiving a heart transplant will not only see the health of their heart improve, but their overall health as well. Similarly, reducing microplastics concentrations may also result in reductions of co-contaminants, such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and harmful algal blooms (HABs).
Unfortunately, some patients suffer from genetic conditions or terminal illnesses for which we simply do not have viable treatment options, or there are patients whose years of alcohol use has caused their organs to shut down. In these scenarios, it may be ineffective to seek out treatments for a problem that cannot be solved. The same sentiment often rings true for microplastics. Regrettablythere are a variety of microplastic issues that at this point are simply unavoidable or irreparable. One example of this is treating ocean water for microplastics. Some innovative organizations are working to remove larger macroplastic waste from ocean gyres, but even this is a gargantuan task. The sheer scale of the ocean makes it impractical to attempt to clean up all the microplastics. And, even if some microplastics are removed now, more upstream microplastics will eventually recontaminate it.
The Path to Wellness
Similar to our health, microplastics solutions can range from common-sense changes taken by the general public to innovative strategies implemented by experts. Throughout your lifetime, you’ll likely use a combination of these various types of healthcare; likewise, the best way we can address microplastics is by using all the tools available and applying them in the appropriate situations. It’s not a good use of resources to try to cure every person with a sniffly nose, but in certain scenarios, targeted work by experts can save lives. When someone is suffering from an urgent and curable health threat, we can’t sit around waiting for test results. Instead, we must start taking appropriate action based on the information available to do our best to remedy the situation.
None of us can live forever, but we still take logical steps to care for our health to maximize both the quality and quantity of our lives. We can view microplastics solutions in a similar light—though there isn’t a “fix” to completely solve microplastics, it is still worthwhile to address this daunting issue through thoughtful action.
Learn More From Our Subject Matter Expert
Alia Enright leads TRC’s internal Center of Research and Expertise (CORE) Emerging Contaminants team and has presented several workshops on microplastics. She is a senior project engineer and Technical Development Unit (TDU) deputy in the Lakewood, Colorado office. She started her environmental engineering career at TRC in 2015 as an intern in the Madison, Wisconsin office.
Additionally, Alia has recently transitioned to becoming a TDU deputy on top of her project work. Her main responsibilities include site investigation and sampling of a variety of media; investigations involving emerging contaminants; technical reporting; remedial options/feasibility study engineering evaluations; and project management. Alia also leads TRC’s CORE Microplastics Sub Team. Contact Alia at AEnright@trccompanies.com.