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Would you drink water or beer with microplastics?

Almost anyone would say “No” because plastic is not edible or digestible.

Certainly everybody would say “No” because plastic is not edible or digestible.However, it seems many people worldwide can’t really say “No” because they’re not aware that they’re drinking water contaminated with microplastics. Some microplastics are so small; they are invisible to the naked eyes. Also, tap water and other food contamination are widespread. In a study by Orb Media , 83 percent of tap water samples from the USA, Europe, Asia and Africa were contaminated with microplastics. Microplastics were also found in all 24 German beer brands tested.

What are microplastics and how did they end up in the beer and tap water tested?

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that are up to five (5) millimeters in size. The term was first used in 2004 by Professor Richard Thompson, a marine biologist at Plymouth University. The upper size limit was set during a U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) workshop in 2008. Microplastics include either any or a combination of the following six types of common polymers (found in most households): polyethylene, polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride, polyamide (nylon), polystyrene and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

Microplastics Classification

There are two categories of microplastics based on their source: primary and secondary. How- ever a third group has been added recently which identifies people’s use of the objects where the microplastics come from.

Primary microplastics

These are microplastics smaller than 5 mm in size which would be appropriate for their intended purpose. One example of primary microplastics are the microbeads which are added to personal care products such as facial cleansers, exfoliating hand cleaners and toothpaste. Microbeads have replaced oatmeal, ground almonds and other natural ingredients that were previously used. And microbeads are that small, that they are able to pass through the screens at wastewater treatment plants to the waterways that carry them to rivers and oceans. Some countries have banned the use of microbeads which account for about 2% of the total microplastics that go to the oceans worldwide. Other examples of primary microplastics are microfibres used in fabrics and the bits of plastics used as “scrubbers” in abrasive air blasting to remove dirt, paint and rust in machines, engines and boat hulls.  The scrubbers, which usually become contaminated with the dirt and other particles in the surfaces they clean are also washed away to the rivers and oceans.  

Secondary microplastics      

These are microscopic plastic pieces resulting from the weathering and fragmentation of bigger plastic pieces found both on land and bodies of water. The breakdown usually happens to plastic pieces that are exposed to UV radiation from sunlight which hastens the degradation of polymers. So, the plastic bottles, bags and other packaging materials people leave in different places eventually become secondary microplastics.       

Microplastics resulting from people’s use of certain objects

Microplastics in this category are in-between primary and secondary. They were not created to microplastic sizes like the microbeads or the abrasive scrubbers nor the result of plastic debris fragmentation. In some countries, they are classified under primary microplastics. Following are the major sources of microplastics in this category:

1. Synthetic

Synthetic fabrics shed off significant amounts of acrylic, polyethylene or polyester microfibres during laundry which are discharged as part of sewage water. The microplastics in the wastewater are that small, that they easily are able to pass any screens in the sewage treatment process.


2. Tyres

Tyre dust gets off when the polymers mixed with natural rubber on the outer surface of tyres eroded while in use. The tyre dust is then blown by the wind or washed away by rainwater.

2. Road markings

Microplastics may also come from weathering and abrasion of paint, preformed polymer tape, paint and epoxy used in road markings. The resulting dust are also either blown by the wind or washed off by rain water.

How does it influence the oceans, the sea life and humans?

You will find microplastics almost everywhere on earth: the land, air and bodies of water. Humans and all living things cannot escape from the influence of microplastics, which are mostly bad. Explanatory graphic: How does it influence the oceans, the sea life and humans?

Oceans and other bodies of water

Humans have used the ocean, directly or indirectly, as their convenient waste disposal area for centuries. The volume of waste increases with industrialization and the increasing use of synthetic materials by the growing population. But the waste materials do not just stay where they had been dumped. Over time, some of them turn into smaller particles like microplastics. Some are dispersed by the wind and waves into other oceans. That is why micro- plastics are found in every ocean. They are such small that it cannot be realized to remove them physically. They are not biodegradable, so they may become smaller but still remain in the ocean.

Microplastics in the oceans and other bodies of water are bad. They are not digestible and contain toxic materials. Fish, worms, zooplankton and other aquatic animals that consume them develop health issues or die. Worms and zooplankton are part of the food supply that fish and other aquatic animals depend on.

If worms and zooplankton consume microplastics, microplastic, fishes and other aquatic aquatic animals that eat them will get contaminated.        

Are fish and sea salt still safe for human consumption?

Interesting Facts And Numbers About Microplastics

1. Microplastics found in tap water samples around the world

Orb Media’s investigation reports that billions of people worldwide are drinking tap water contaminated with microplastics.   Following are the sources of the test samples, the percentage of samples where plastic fibres were found and the average number of fibres in 500 ml.

  • United States –  94.4 % of samples ; 4.8 fibres/ 500 ml
  • Ecuador  - 79.2 % of samples; 2.2 fibres / 500 ml
  • Europe - 72.2%; 1.9.
  • Lebanon – 93.8% ; 4.5
  • Uganda – 80.8 ; 2.2
  • India – 82.4 – 4.0
  • Indonesia – 76.2% ; 1.9

The countries tested in Europe were the U.K., Germany and France. Overall, plastic fibre contamination was found in 83% of the samples tested. The United States, at 94.4%, had the highest percentage of samples that were contaminated with plastic fibres. The samples were taken from the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) headquarters, the Trump Tower in New York and the U.S. Congress. The next highest rates of contaminated samples were from Lebanon and India. Samples taken from Europe had the lowest rate of contamination at 72.2%. Samples also had the lowest average number of fibres per 500 ml.

The investigation also identified the following as the obvious reasons for the microplastic contamination of tap water: 

  • Nearly 80% of tumble dryers in the U.S. release  microplastics fibres from synthetic fabrics to the open  air. The atmosphere spreads these fibres to various  open water sources such as lakes and other  bodies of water.     
  • Rinsing water with microplastics is released to water  systems. Microplastic fibres are that small that they  are able to pass the screens of a water treatment and  will thus be released with treated water. According to  a study, 700,000 fibres are released per washing  machine cycle.
  • Rainwater also carries microplastics pollution as it  flows to various bodies of water.
  • Even when water is treated, the microplastics can  pass through the screens - so even ‘clean’ tap water  contains microplastic. 

2. Microplastics in honey

This could be another proof that microplastics contamination can also be found even in elevated areas where honeybee hives are located.
According to ‘60 Millions de Consommateurs’, 12 honey samples were tested and microplastics were found in all 12 samples. The consumer group reported that they found:

  • Plastic fibres that most likely came from fabrics
  • Fragments that were probably from bigger pieces of plastic and
  • Granules like microbeads that are used in cosmetics or as scrubbers. 

The consumer group also said that the types of microplastics seen during the test were similar to those found in the oceans. The group added that the results were similar to the German study in 2013 but the contamination level in this study was three times the level of the most polluted German sample. 

3. Autoreifen und synthetische Gewebe sind wichtige Quellen für Mikrokunststoffe im Meer

Sekundäre Mikrokunststoffe aus der Fragmentierung großer Kunststoffteile sind nicht die Hauptschadstoffe im Ozean; sie sind Mikrokunststoffe aus Reifen und Textilien gemäß der International Union For Conservation Of Nature (IUCN). Etwa 60% der derzeit verwendeten Reifen bestehen aus synthetischem Kautschuk. In Bezug auf das Volumen scheint es, dass sekundäre Mikrokunststoffe die Hauptquelle der Meeresverschmutzung sind. Die IUCN entdeckte jedoch, dass ihre Mikrokunststoffe durch den Abrieb von auf der Straße laufenden Reifen und Fasern beim Waschen von synthetischen Geweben entstanden sind.  

About 60% of tyres currently in use are made of synthetic rubber. 

In terms of volume it seems that secondary microplastics would be the major source of ocean pollution. However, IUCN discovered that its microplastics originated from abrasion of tyres running on the road and fibre while washing synthetic fabrics.   

Impact of Microplastics

Microplastics are increasingly being found in small to big aquatic animals. One of the dangers of ingesting microplastics is that they absorb toxic chemicals while in the water. The harmful chemicals may leach out of the microplastics to the human bodies that hold them.  There is ongoing research to determine how the food chain will be affected.

An initiative of ATB WATER