“Microplastics”: The Next Threat to Mankind?

“Microplastics”: The Next Threat to Mankind?

Asha Embrandiri (University Malaysia Kelantan, Malaysia), Shlrene Quaik (Universiti Sains Malaysia, Malaysia), Madu Ijanu Emmanuel (Universiti Sains Malaysia, Malaysia), Mariyam Rahma (Kannur University, India), Parveen Fatemeh Rupani (Jiangsu University, China), Mohd Hafiz Jamaludin (Universiti Malaysia Kelantan, Malaysia) and Mohd Azrul Naim (International Islamic University Malaysia, Malaysia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-0369-0.ch006
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Microplastics are plastics with smaller than 5mm particle size and they originate from sequential degradation of larger plastic molecules or are manufactured, and they have found use in many realms of life. Their gradual degradability and ingestion by aquatic organisms have become an environmental concern. Microplastics are regarded as a “tiny problem” requiring massive attention. Occurrences of microplastics have been detected in almost all environment matrices. Although several committees have taken steps towards handling the menace, most of the regulations' guidelines refer to “all wastes” in general, leaving many loopholes. This chapter views microplastics, occurrences, detection, and existing policies. The roles of industry and individuals in preserving the ecosystems are deliberated. In summary, emphasis on the bottom-up strategy to curb the escalating amount of plastics waste in our environment is sought and adoption of the “avoid the avoidable” attitude for a more holistic approach in tackling the severity of the impending threat.
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Occurrence of Microplastics

Plastics are undeniably a key component of our contemporary world, confronted every day at home, offices, grocery shops to the hospitals, schools and almost everywhere. However Fendell and Sewell, (2009) observed that unfortunately, over 50% large plastic items culminate in the oceans and over the course of time form macroplastic debris.

Global plastic production in 2017 according to Statistica (2017), was estimated at a whopping 348 million metric tonnes. This trend is still likely to rise as depicted in Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Global trends of plastic production (metric tonnes).

Source: Plastics Europe 2015 (http://grid-arendal.herokuapp.com/resources/6923)Maphoto/Riccardo Pravettoni

Sources of Microplastics

Microplastics are defined as plastic fragments with the size of less than 5 mm. Browne et al., (2015) had however proposed that the definition should take into account smaller fragments as well (<1 mm). Their gradual degradability, ingestion by aquatic organisms and carriers of persistent organic pollutants from environment to aquatic organisms has become a major source of growing environmental concern.

Figure 2 illustrates the classification of microplastics based on shape, size and polymer type. Generally, microplastics in the marine environment are typically found as pellets, fragments, or fibers and are composed of diverse polymers (Smith et al., 2018, Galgani et al., 2013). Denser particles such as PVC, polyester, polyamide tend to settle at the bottom of the ocean bed while the lighter (polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene) are found floating on the surface of the oceans.

Figure 2.

Classification of microplastics based on shape, size and polymer type.


Mega debris fall in the 100 mm range while micro-debris is below 5 mm (Ryan et al., 2009; Thompson et al., 2009). Also, they are categorized based on their production. Primary microplastics are produced for direct consumption which is found in our everyday lives whereas the secondary microplastics occur as a result of the degradation of larger plastic molecules. Table 1 shows a compilation of the worldwide production of plastic polymers in million tonnes, estimated decomposition rate and recyclability. It reveals that production of LPDE (used in production of containers for milk, cleaning agents, shampoo, boxes) is 57 million tonnes yearly, closely followed by PP (55 million tonnes). However, a good reprieve is that they are recyclable and can be used for other things long after their primary uses are over. It is alarming to know that polyamide polymers take an estimated time of 600 years to degrade and is not recyclable.

Table 1.
Worldwide production of polymers (million tonnes), estimated decomposition (years) time and recyclability
Type of Microplastics PresentProduction in Million TonnesCommercial ApplicationEstimated Time for Decomposition (yrs)Recyclability
Polyamide (PA)/Nylon42Fishing nets and ropes, carpets, sportswear, textile600No
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)15Film, Pipe, Insulation, roofing materials,>450No
Polypropylene (PP), Polyterephthalate (PET), Polyester(PES)55
Rope, bottle caps, gear. Strapping, bottles, boats, textiles450Yes
Polystyrene (PS)17Cool boxes, floats, cups, utensils, take away packs.50Rarely
Polyethylene PE HPDE
Plastic bags, storage, Containers for milk, cleaning agents, shampoo, boxes, straws,20Yes
Cellulose acetate(CA)11Cigarette butts10-12No

Modified from: Enders et al.,2015, Geyer et al., 2017

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