We live in a plasticized world. Plastic is everywhere; it is often used in packaging, whether it’s your clothes that are being shipped off or food and drinks, in textiles, electronics, machinery, and more.
What are microplastics?
Microplastic is “extremely small pieces of plastic debris in the environment resulting in the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste” according to the Oxford dictionary.
We produce about 400 million tonnes of plastic waste per year and approximately 36% of this is used in packaging. Plastic, at the time of its creation, was known to be a very durable material, they even made little capsule houses out of plastic.
It was a revolutionary material until new studies showed that it was actually harming the environment. Being non-biodegradable, plastic does not break down easily, instead, over a longer period of time, it breaks down into smaller pieces and these minuscule particles are called microplastic.
Microplastic is everywhere; the soil, the oceans, vegetables, and fish, it is floating through the air and recent studies also found traces of microplastic in the human placenta! Microplastic can have multiple health consequences for humans such as developmental, reproductive, and hormonal problems, increased risk of chronic disease, and impaired immune health.
These conditions make sustainable living hard, however, there are steps we can take to remedy that and learn how to avoid microplastic in food!
What foods have the most microplastics?
1. Fruit and vegetables
New studies have found traces of microplastic in fruits and vegetables. One fruit that stands out because of the high count of microplastic in it is apples. An apple a day used to keep the doctor away but at this given time, that apple is sending you to the doctor’s way.
An apple had an average of 195,500 plastic particles per gram and a pear, not too far from the apple, averages around 189,500 plastic particles per gram. Some of the most contaminated vegetables are broccoli and carrot.
As plants grow, microplastics present in the soil and microplastic-contaminated water get absorbed. Studies have shown that microplastic is penetrating the roots of lettuce plants and wheat plants.
According to a 2018 study co-led by Incheon National University, South Korea, and Greenpeace East Asia, over 90% of the sampled salt brands sourced from 21 countries contained microplastic. Another study by Hong Kong’s Consumer Council found 114 to 17,200 milligrams of microplastic per kilogram of salt tested.
3. Bottled water
While both tap water and bottled water contain microplastic, researchers discovered that bottled water contains twice as many microplastic particles as tap water. One of the largest sources of microplastic ingestion globally is through both bottled and tap water.
We still need to stay hydrated. Choose the lesser of the two evils, go for the tap water, and use an eco-friendly bottle!
4. Teabag and microplastic
Even tea contains microplastic. Its source can be traced back to the teabags which are heat-sealed with polypropylene plastic that prevents them from breaking. As the teabag slowly boils, the teabag starts to create microplastic particles.
One staple for many societies, a 2021 study found microplastic in packaged rice. Pre-cooked rice has an even worse count of microplastic; pre-cooked rice was found to contain four times the amount of microplastic. While the packaging itself made no difference in the concentration of microplastic, washing your rice before cooking reduces the microplastic count by 20 to 40%.
6. Fish and shellfish
The alarmingly high count of plastic waste that has been dumped in the ocean and by pollution resulted in a high count of microplastic that fish ingests. Fish and other organisms that are also preyed upon propel the cycle of ingestion of microplastic. Even commercially farmed fish are likely to ingest microplastic through their fishmeal.
The count of microplastic varies along the wide range of sea life. Microplastic is usually stored in the animal’s gut, so seafood which is consumed without removal is more likely to contain a higher amount of microplastics. Examples would be mussels, oysters, prawns, and shrimp.
With millions of microplastic particles floating through the air, bees’ positively charged hairs attract not only pollen but microplastics as well. These particles are then transported to their hive and end up in the honey they produce.
A study was conducted in 2020 where they looked at a variety of drinks and the highest count of microplastics was found in beer.
So where do these microplastic particles come from? It can be traced back to water used but according to another study where beers from two breweries that used the same municipal water supply were found to contain different concentrations of microplastic. This suggests that the production might also be contributing to the count of microplastics.
How do you reduce microplastics in food?
With an alarming amount of microplastic particles that are found in our food and drink intake, we have to find ways to avoid microplastics in food.
We can do so by choosing tap water and an eco-friendly water bottle, substituting for organic tea brands that use plastic-free teabags, and using eco-friendly kitchen products, cookware, and plastic-free food storage containers.
Other steps we highly encourage you to consider are finding sustainable alternatives to Amazon and its affiliated brands, recycling plastic products such as Tupperware containers, and generally leading a plastic-free life.
It is easier said than done but these tips and substitutions will be helpful; a plastic-free cleaning kit is a great place to start, how to make your fridge plastic-free, substitute plastic toys with wooden ones, shop at zero-waste stores, and here is a handy list of zero-waste hand soap. We have to learn how to avoid eating microplastics to minimize health risks.
Tips on how to avoid microplastics in food
1. Consume less processed foods
Not only do these highly-processed foods have low nutritional quality but they also have a high level of microplastic. This effect is especially bad for children. Instead, choose whole foods and minimally processed foods.
2. Drink filtered tap water
While tap water contains microplastic, the count of microplastic in tap water is lower than in bottled water. Now add a water filter to the equation, a carbon block or distillation filter can filter 100% of the microplastics.
3. Use eco-friendly bottles such as glass or stainless steel bottles
As water sits in a plastic bottle, the latter slowly disintegrate into smaller particles either because of heat, collision, or time. It's why glass is better than plastic in this case.
4. Use eco-friendly packaging
Using non-plastic containers to store food reduces exposure to microplastics.
5. Do not microwave food in plastic containers
The process where plastic turns into microplastic is accelerated by heat. By heating your food into plastic Tupperware and boxes, you are adding more microplastic to your food.
6. Substitute takeaway cups with refillable and eco-friendly ones
Paper cups are also known to release microplastics when in contact with hot liquids. The lining of the cups is mostly made with HDPE-grade plastic. While this is considered safe, studies have shown that it leaks estrogenic chemicals.
7. Use plastic-free cleaning supplies
When we are talking about having less microplastic in our foods, it’s not just the food, packaging, or container that matter. Using plastic-free and gentle cleaning supplies limits the number of microplastics getting into our food from an external source.
8. Limit seafood consumption
Microplastics have been found in 386 aquatic life and over half of them are consumed. Studies suggest that microplastics and even smaller particles called nanoparticles are not only present in the gut of a fish but these smaller particles can move to their muscle tissue which we consume.
9. Use plastic-free tea bags or loose-leaf tea
Did you know that 11.6 billion microplastic and 3.1 billion nano-plastic are released into a drink when a plastic teabag is brewed? Replacing these tea bags with loose-leaf tea removes these microplastics completely from the drink.
10. Say No to plastic straws!
“Because without turtles, we wouldn’t have turtles” - Bretman Rock
What are other ways to avoid microplastics?
There are other ways to avoid microplastic in food that do not involve food and containers directly.
Microplastics also enter our bodies through the air. They are often mixed with dust particles. Regular dusting and vacuuming can help reduce the amount of microplastic we inhale.
Having fewer plastic products, in general, will also rescue the number of microplastics in your house. This will range from plastic-free cosmetics, plastic-free decorations, plastic-free clothes, and so on.
How can we prevent microplastics in food and water?
Now that we have covered how to avoid microplastic in food, we can also learn how to prevent microplastic in food and water.
Buying non-synthetic eco-friendly clothes and fewer plastic products are steps to consider. As demands for plastic products decrease, production will also decrease and this automatically reduces the number of microplastic in the future. We already have more than enough plastic waste to worry about, we do not need more plastic in production, right?!
A final word on avoiding microplastics in food
In our everyday life, we are constantly surrounded by plastic; be it in our plates and cutlery, the furniture we are sitting on, or even the device we are using to read this article. Even medical equipment in our hospital is made of plastic.
We have produced more than 10 billion tons of objects and we are making more. Out of these objects, so much of it piles up in our landfill, slowly breaking down and producing microplastics.
It is also important to remember it is not just old plastic stuff that breaks down but also new objects that stays in the sun too long or even ripping that wrapper off your food! The investigation pertaining to how microplastics affect our health is ongoing.
It is more important than ever to work with our community to recycle, to ask your government to pass that legislation to limit the use of single-use plastics and limit plastic production. More importantly, it is time we start using less plastic in our life! If you found this post helpful, please help someone by sharing this article – Sharing is caring 🙂!