A staggering amount of plastic is entering the environment as the result of tons of disposable plastic bottles, bags and microfibers from your clothing. Although you likely do not experience the direct effect of garbage from your day to day life, it is quite literally choking our ecosystem. The amount of plastic that enters the environment grows each year as manufacturers continue to produce products in disposable containers and consumers continue to demand a disposable lifestyle.
It is estimated that unless practices change, the amount of plastic entering the ocean by 2025 could be as high as 26 million metric tons per year.1 According to environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservancy, some plastics resist degradation so long they may be in a recognizable shape for up to 400 years.
Heavily polluted areas of the ocean are referred to as garbage patches, and now cover nearly 40 percent of the world's ocean surfaces.2 But the problems are not limited to larger pieces of debris that resist breakdown. Some plastics break down easily in the sea current into microparticles less than 5 millimeters (0.19 inch) long. These pieces can migrate farther and faster, now being found as far as the Arctic Ocean.
In each of the larger ocean bodies are gyres, systems of circular currents formed by global wind patterns, circulating water around the globe.3 Recent research has now demonstrated some plastics, microfibers and plastic beads from facial scrubs have broken down into microparticles. These microparticles are being transported around the globe in waters being harvested for salt.
Ocean Plastic Pollutes Sea Salt
An initial study published in Environmental Science and Technology found salt sold and consumed in China contained microsized particles of plastics from disposable bottles, as well as polyethylene, cellophane and a number of other types of plastics. The highest levels of plastics were found in salt harvested from seawater.4 In other words, as you purchase sea salt to be healthy, you may be polluting your body with plastic.
In this study, more than 250 particles of plastics were found in 1 pound of sea salt. Sherri Mason, Ph.D., professor of chemistry in the Department of Geology and Environmental Sciences at State University New York Fredonia, commented on the results of this research before leading the most recent study evaluating the amount of plastic consumed in salt from around the world. Following the study from China, she said:5
"Plastics have become such a ubiquitous contaminant, I doubt it matters whether you look for plastic in sea salt on Chinese or American supermarket shelves. I'd like to see some ‘me-too’ studies."
Two years later she had published just such a study demonstrating Americans could be ingesting up to 660 microparticles of plastic each year if they consume no more than the recommended 2.3 grams of salt per day.6 However, nearly 90 percent of Americans eat more salt, which means they likely consume more plastic particles than estimated as well.
In collaboration with researchers from the University of Minnesota, Mason examined the number of plastics found in beer, tap water and salt. The study evaluated 12 different types of salt, 10 of them sea salt, from grocery stores around the world. Mason believes that sea salt is more vulnerable to plastic contamination since it's made by harvesting saltwater and allowing the water to evaporate, leaving the salt behind. Mason commented:7
"It's not that sea salt in China is worse than sea salt in America, it's that all sea salt — because it's coming from the same origins — is going to have a consistent problem. I think that's what we're seeing. I hope what comes from this is not that [consumers] just switch brands and try to find something that's table salt or mined salt.
People want to disconnect and say, ‘It's OK if I go to Starbucks every day and get that disposable coffee cup’ … We have to focus on the flow of plastic and the pervasiveness of plastics in our society and find other materials to be using instead."
UN Declares War on Ocean Plastic
Researchers believe the majority of plastic pollution originates from single-use plastics and microfibers. Currently, nearly 13 tons of plastic enter the oceans each year. This is equivalent to dumping a garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute.8 If change doesn’t occur, this may mean up to two garbage trucks full of plastic being dumped into the ocean every minute.
In response to the rising problem, the United Nations (U.N.) Environment announced a major global effort to end marine pollution tagged #CleanSeas.9 The campaign is urging governments around the world to pass plastic reduction policies, mandate redesign of products and call on consumers to change their habits — all before further irreversible damage is done to the seas.
Ten countries have already joined the campaign, including Indonesia, Costa Rica and Uruguay. The problems with plastic pollution are a combination of the physical plastic that is damaging the ecosystem and animal life, and the toxins that adhere to the plastics, making their way into animal bodies, destroying the health of the wildlife and the people who eat their meat.
England, Scotland and Germany are just three countries that have begun developing and instituting recycling programs to reduce plastic pollution emanating from their country.10 Erik Solheim, head of U.N. Environment, commented on the damage done to the environment from plastics:11
"It is past time that we tackle the plastic problem that blights our oceans. Plastic pollution is surfing onto Indonesian beaches, settling onto the ocean floor at the North Pole, and rising through the food chain onto our dinner tables. We've stood by too long as the problem has gotten worse. It must stop."
Countries are slowly taking notice of the devastation to marine life and their beaches from the irresponsible disposal of plastic products. After a campaign launched by Daily Mail, Britain announced a ban on the use of plastic microbeads commonly used in facial scrubs.12