We Are What We Eat

Plastic waste in the oceans break into small pieces and invisible microplastic. Sea animals mistake it for food and end up filling up their stomachs with trash. Death is sure and painful. The same polluted fauna end up in our stomaches.

Imagine 2,800,000 blue whales, the largest of all animals, stacked on top of each other. Complicated, right? They would be the equivalent of 500 million tons; the amount of plastic waste that, according to Greenpeace, we will produce annually around the world in 2020. They do not seem to exaggerate, therefore, those who say that we live in the Age of Plastic or on the Planet of Plastic.

Image by Dustan Woodhouse

The consequences of plastic waste are diverse. One of the problems, very serious, is that all this garbage that surrounds us and that does not biodegrade erodes and fragments until it becomes tiny, so it ends up many times inside our body without us noticing. There are plastics that are even imperceptible from the beginning, such as the microspheres used by the cosmetic industry in toothpaste, scrubs, detergents or gels that run down the drain and escape the filters of the treatment plants. All of them are called ‘microplastics’.

Every year we ingest around 11,000 microplastic particles, according to researchers at the University of Ghent in Belgium. They have been found in drinking, tap and bottled water; in salt, in fish and seafood, in beers and in honey. "It is unavoidable. These particles are already in the environment. In fact, we suspect that they are found in all foods, ”says María Íñiguez, a chemical engineer and researcher at the University of Alicante, who has verified the presence of microplastics in cooking salt.

When the sampling began, Íñiguez assumed that he would only detect them in sea salt, because each year between 4.8 and 12.7 million tons of plastic waste end up in the oceans, according to calculations made in 2010 by Jenna Jambeck. , an expert in environmental engineering from the University of Georgia. The Alicante researcher, however, also found microplastics in salt from underground deposits. According to her Íñiguez, if every day we limit ourselves to eating the five grams of salt (less than a teaspoon) recommended by the World Health Organization, we ingest about 510 particles per year. "If we compare it with the 178 particles that other researchers have found in a single mussel, the amount in the salt is not excessive," the expert admits. Although the truth is that we still do not know how much is a lot or how much is little. That is, it is not yet known what the amounts or the harmful effects for humans are.









Toxic bomb

"Although we do not directly know the cumulative effects on health, research leads us to believe that the microplastics we ingest are a small toxic bomb," says Elvira Jiménez, head of the Oceans Campaign at Greenpeace Spain. The fact that plastic exerts a worrisome attraction to other poisons is what justifies this suspicion. In other words, hydrocarbons or heavy metals stick to the microplastic, adding to the toxins that most plastics already release. Bisphenol A (BPA), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) or phthalates, for example, are compounds capable of causing imbalances in the hormonal system in very low concentrations, which mainly affect the reproductive system.


“In the sea, the toxins accumulated in microplastics have a concentration a thousand times greater than that of the water around them. A crab or a fish eat these particles, which, when they are brought to the table, pass into our organism, ”illustrates Jiménez. This is what Jesús Gago, a researcher at the Spanish Institute of Oceanography, calls the ‘Trojan horse effect’: “We do not know the impact on our health, but there is no doubt that microplastic carries toxicity within us”.

The damage caused to shellfish and fish, in fact, is already proven. "They choke to death, due to internal dilaceration or because the additives attached to them can be released during ingestion and produce toxicity", explains Luis Francisco Ruiz-Orejón, researcher at the Center for Advanced Studies of Blanes, belonging to the Higher Council for Scientific Research ( CSIC). Marine animals ingest microplastics because they are filter feeders - in the case of mussels, oysters, clams or razor clams - or because they mistake them for food, as has already been detected even in large fish such as tuna or swordfish. They eat them and therefore we eat them.

In the washing machine

The chances are too high. After all, microplastics can be microscopic pieces of a bottle decomposed by sunlight, waves and the action of the wind, or they can be microspheres of cosmetic products that reach the sea through the drain.













A single container can hold 130,000 to 2.8 million tiny plastic balls. Only in Europe, without going any further, will the equivalent of the weight of the Eiffel Tower end up in the sea, according to Greenpeace.

Synthetic fibers are also microplastics - acrylic releases five times more fibers than polyester - which, wash after wash, end up going into the environment: around 700,000 particles for each cycle of the washing machine. Or tire dust (20 grams per 100 kilometers we drive); or the paint on houses, boats or road markings, which turn to dust and account for around 10 percent of microplastic pollution in the oceans.

Heavy metals stick to microplastics, increasing their toxicity

All that goes, by the way, to the water we drink, whether tap or bottled, as scientists from the State University of New York and the University of Minnesota have found after analyzing 194 samples collected in large cities on five continents. In Denmark, research by the University of Aarhus has detected an average of 18 pieces of microplastic in every liter of drinking water collected from Copenhagen households.

"Everything is connected. Atmosphere, marine environment ... », says Ruiz-Orejón. This expert on marine plastic pollution has spent three months collecting samples on the surface of the Mediterranean. With a device called the Manta Trawl, capable of trapping plastic particles as tiny as the diameter of three strands of hair, the diagnosis has been disappointing: all the samples contained microplastics. "If we extrapolate the results of the study to the entire surface of the sea, there would be 1,500 tons of microplastics at a depth of just 25 centimeters," he explains.

Marine warehouse

Recent studies, in fact, estimate that between 20 and 50 percent of microplastics are concentrated in the oceans in the Mediterranean. “It is an almost closed basin whose water renewal process takes around a hundred years. That is, everything that arrives stays there ”, explains Elvira Jiménez, the spokesperson for Greenpeace, an organization that is part of Break Free From Plastic, a global alliance of more than 900 NGOs that is fighting to reduce the production of plastic packaging. single use of this material. "This is a global problem and responsibility is shared, therefore, it requires global action and we cannot expect each country to take its initiatives," says Jiménez.


In Europe, where 25 percent of plastic garbage is recycled, a Commission directive for two years has obliged member countries to reduce the consumption of plastic bags to 90 per person per year by 2020 and to 40 by 2025 In Spain, however, where we use between 120 and 133 bags (more than 5000 million per year), this regulation will only apply from January 2018.

Meanwhile, the Commission has carried out a public consultation, between last June and October, in order to analyze options to reduce the emission of microplastics. Pending its results, at the moment, the United Kingdom is the only European country that is preparing to ban the manufacture (on January 1) and the sale (on June 30) of cosmetics with microspheres. The French, for their part, have outlawed all-plastic tableware and cutlery and products such as ear buds. As of 2020 they can only be manufactured with 50 percent plastic and, from 2025, 60 percent with organic, biodegradable materials, such as corn starch or potato starch.












The question, experts say, is to find solutions, but without alarms. For example, we can all contribute a grain of sand by going to the supermarket with cloth bags; preferably buying in bulk, eliminating the use of plastic straws, cutlery and plates, reusing containers and avoiding disposable bottles. Plastic is not a demon. It is not about being fundamentalists, but it is about reducing it -explains researcher Jesús Gago-. There are studies that say that if the car did not have plastic elements it would consume four times more gasoline.

Ingesting plastic particles could affect the hormonal system and reproduction

No matter where we look, we are surrounded by this cheap and lightweight material, which adopts a variety of shapes, textures and colors, designed to be resistant, durable and, therefore, practically indestructible. Created in the service of man, it has a way, it could well, as you can see, of turning against its own creator.

Heavy metals stick to microplastics, increasing their toxicity

Ingesting plastic particles could affect the hormonal system and reproduction

A single plastic container can contain 130,000 to 2.8 million tiny particles. In Spain we use more than 5000 million bags of this material per year

Between 4.8 and 12.7 million tons of plastic waste end up in the oceans each year. Marine animals ingest particles that are then passed on to humans