Microplastics and Nanoplastics – The Tale of the Tarp

Hi, my name is Kate and I’m a self confessed plastic hating greeny. This identity has come recently to a conservative, overweight grandmother from small town New Zealand. In the past the sum total of my environmental awareness has been donating to ailing dolphins and signing petitions about shrinking waterways. This all changed because of a bright blue tarpaulin.

Just the thing to cover the trailer. After around three months of weather it began to breakup into increasing smaller and smaller pieces of plastic. The very tatty brittle tarpaulin had to go and it was dispatched to the dump. Here, out of sight-out of mind, I assume it remains buried in an airless sunless hole where it will stay polluting for hundreds maybe thousands of years.

Blue Plastic Tarp Pieces in Dirt
Blue Plastic Tarp Pieces in Dirt

My only regret at the time probably amounted to ‘what a waste of money’ . Not so now- oh no. I wish that I had never brought that blessed thing . In the five years since the tarpaulin broke up I have been finding small strands of plastic in the garden. There are an impossible number in the soil, looking as bright blue as ever. These are microplastics, particles less than 5mm.

I have seen the awful pictures of plastic killing turtles and in the great rubbish patch in the Pacific and felt appropriately outraged but somehow disconnected after all I don’t go down to the beach to toss my plastic bags into the water. But I am directly responsible for adding plastic to my own backyard. According to the UN the volume of microplastics dumped on land is between 4 and 23 times greater than that going directly into the world’s oceans and it is this disturbing knowledge that has really brought home to me how complicit I am in trashing this precious world.

Microplastics, as they decay or break into increasingly smaller and smaller pieces, becoming nanoplastics with a size range of 1 to 1000nm. These tiny fragments release toxic chemicals or mimick hormones with disastrous consequences for organisms living in soil, they create a medium for bacterial growth, change the way worms do their job, and wash into waterways. These tiny particles can cross cell barriers and membranes such as the blood-brain barrier or the placenta. Once inside cells, nanoplastics change how they work. We now have plastics in their bodies and the implications of this are absolutely terrifying.

I have pondered what I can do – I’m never going to influence people with a TED talk or outlaw plastics by running for government. Even though I am struggling to come to terms with bamboo toothbrushes, I’ve decided to cut as much plastic out of my life as I can. Little by little I am also trying to get those around me to give this it try – after all honeywraps and stainless pegs are fabulous.
NB this was all typed on a plastic computer. It’s going to be a long haul.

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