Issues & Insights
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

A Little Truth About Microplastics

While most Californians sleep at night, there must be a group somewhere that stays up thinking of something else to ban. How else to explain the unrelenting march of prohibitions, from single-use plastic bags – directly approved by voters – to plastic straws, to gasoline-powered lawn equipment and eventually the sale of new automobiles that burn the same fossil fuel?

The sleepless evenings have kept the state’s war on plastics burning hot. A campaign to at least limit the volume of microplastics – beads smaller than 5 millimeters across produced by the breakdown of plastic products – that end up in the sea is catching fire. According to the Los Angeles Times:​

“California aims to sharply limit the spiraling scourge of microplastics in the ocean, while urging more study of this threat to fish, marine mammals and potentially to humans, under a plan a state panel approved” on Feb. 23.

“The Ocean Protection Council voted to make California the first state to adopt a comprehensive plan to rein in the pollution.”

Sounds serious, that “threat” to marine life and humans. Are things that bad? To quote John Lennon, “just gimme some truth” about microplastics.

What happens to the microplastics that end up at sea?

“Over time microplastic particles appear to be disappearing from the ocean’s surface,” says environmental writer Ronald Bailey, basing his comments on a peer-reviewed study in a scientific journal. “Plastics are broken up over time into ever tinier pieces by the action of the waves and ultraviolet sunlight.” 

Where are microplastic particles coming from?

A 2015 study in Science estimated the “flow of plastic waste from 20 populous coastal countries,” says Bailey. The U.S. is at the bottom of the list, “dumping less than 1% of the plastics that end up in the oceans annually.”

No surprise that China is the “leader” of ocean plastic polluters – it accounts for 28% of all “plastics thrown into the oceans each year.” About 60% is “discarded by the fast growing East Asian economies of China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.” The inescapable fact is much of the world outside the West doesn’t practice disciplined waste disposal hygiene.

Are they really a threat to animals?

The only honest answer is “who knows?” The puzzle is best summed up by an article in The Conversation, which says “while many studies find microplastics can affect the gene expression, growth, reproduction or survival of an animal, others conclude that microplastics have no negative effects.”

For instance: 

“More than 100 laboratory studies have exposed animals, mostly aquatic organisms, to microplastics,” says Nature magazine. The findings – “that exposure might lead some organisms to reproduce less effectively or suffer physical damage” – however, don’t easily lead to bright-line answers, as microplastics come in “many shapes, sizes and chemical compositions, and many of the studies used materials that were quite unlike those found in the environment.”

(Emphasis a wholly owned commentary of the author.)

Nature further notes that while it’s possible microplastics attract chemical pollutants and “then deliver them into animals that eat the contaminated specks … animals ingest pollutants from food and water anyway,” and it’s not implausible that the particles, “if largely uncontaminated when swallowed,” could help to remove pollutants from their systems. That’s good, right?

At the same time, it’s also possible that animals ingesting microplastics don’t get enough real food to survive. Not so good.

What about the danger to human health through tap and bottled water?

“Although it is not possible to draw any firm conclusion on toxicity related to the physical hazard of plastic particles, particularly the nano size particles through drinking-water exposure,” says the World Health Organization, “no reliable information suggests it is a concern. Humans have ingested microplastics and other particles in the environment for decades with no related indication of adverse health effects. In addition, drinking-water treatment is effective at removing particles.”

“Most of what you ingest is going to pass straight through your gut and out the other end,” says Tamara Galloway, a University of Exeter ecotoxicologist.

What about the rubber particles produced by the wear on car tires?

Reuters reports there is “a growing body of scientific research linking tire wear to microplastic pollution.” Some say tires are the single largest contributor to microplastics in the environment. Tire manufacturers, however, say the dust-like particles “present no significant risk to humans and the environment.”

Again, there are still more questions than there are convincing answers.

Even though microplastics make up only about 8% of all ocean plastics, nobody wants to foul the water with them or anything else that doesn’t belong there. But they are not the problem they are often made out to be. According to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the concentrations of microplastics used when evaluating them for possible toxicity “were all done using 100 to 10 million times more microplastic than we actually find in the ocean.”

“That’s bad science,” says CEI’s Angela Logomasini.

“There is neither a body of solid evidence nor a consensus on whether microplastics cause significant harm,” she continues. The “science” seems to be more about politics, rather than the application of the scientific method in search of answers. Out of that is birthed a political “consensus about the need to reduce the use of plastics in general.”

“While researchers admit that microplastics science is largely inconclusive, they still advocate for plastic bans and regulations – expressing a political preference for precautionary policies that lack supporting science.” 

Is there another state that legislates more than California based on the possibility there might be a problem? It’s not even a close race. This is a nanny state not only in the sense of efforts to provide lifelong taxpayer-provided socialist benefits, but in its hypercautious and no-sense-of-proportion approach to lawmaking. The majority of legislators, bureaucrats, and unelected agency and commission members apparently spends great parts of its days asking itself “what if?” and then moves on to spinning tales that exaggerate the dangers of whatever it is it’s what-iffing.

These folks rarely ever offer solutions, just default to laws and regulations that proscribe behaviors they don’t like. They’re so busy saying “no, no, no” that they probably aren’t even aware that there exist enzymes that will eat the plastics that litter the environment. Shouldn’t the Ocean Protection Council be researching this development as intensely as it plans to study the potential threat of microplastics? Oh, that’s right – it just doesn’t fit in with the political urge to force Californians to alter their lives in pursuit of what Sacramento myopically defines as a “public good.”

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

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9 comments

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  • I remember when using plastic bags was the Green way to save the planet from the evils of paper shopping bags that evidently weren’t biodegradable enough for the folks trying to save the planet. It’s amazing how “saving the planet” became “killing the planet” once all the alternatives were no longer available.

  • “Getting comments posted on this site is a privilege, not a right.”

    What are “things a Nazi would definitely say?” , Alex.

    I remember a time when Free Speech applied EVERYWHERE. By all means…censor away.

    At least in reading this, you’ll be reminded of the hypocritical monsters you’ve become.

    How does it feel to stand on the wrong side of history?

    • Our goal is to keep profanity, spam, trolls, and the insane from filling up the comment section. But as you can see, we will publish comments that are inane.

  • The article states, “A 2015 study in Science estimated the “flow of plastic waste from 20 populous coastal countries,” says Bailey. The U.S. is at the bottom of the list, “dumping less than 1% of the plastics that end up in the oceans annually.”

    So why the disproportionate concern? Look at the predictable results and then who might benefit from it. Given that the U.S. dumps “less than 1% of the plastics that end up in the oceans annually” the result of severe restrictions in California or even in every coastal state would not appreciably reduce microplastics in the oceans.

    Severe restrictions will however further economically harm the U.S. That is a certain result. Who might have the motivation to economically harm the U.S.? Obviously China but an internal element is required to significantly affect internal change. To identify that element simply ask whose behavior reflects a desire to “fundamentally transform” the U.S…

    The climate fanatics are being manipulated by those who seek the “fundamental” cultural, political and economic “transformation” of America.

    • I don’t understand. The us puts 1% of waste plastic into the oceans and yet it seems that we are villanized as being the world’s gross polluter while nations with much larger populations don’t seem to have problems dumping plastic into the oceans. Could the problem be corrupt money and the thirst for it?

  • Face it t he Eco-Freaks w ant to control our lives from Cradle to Grave and dictate how we live not happy that Pollution is way down(Mind Pollutions way up)the Eco-Nazis/Watermelons want power and control

  • Regarding the plastic bag ban, in California the senate proposition ballot description was deliberately confusing, compliments of State Sen Xaver Becerra. Less than 1 million ballots total were cast. Most voters just shrugged and didn’t vote because they could not follow the convoluted ballot description.
    Today, the landfills are choked with “multi-use” bags. It is a failed attempt at social engineering, and there is nary a peep from the corrupt press.

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