That’s the federal government’s reasoning in a new initiative it is funding. This is a bad idea.
Microplastics are polluting our environment and wrecking our health. To combat this pollution, the government is funding research…to turn microplastics into food. Yes, you read that correctly. The Defense Department is funding a project to turn plastic into food for the military. But what starts as a military project could be deployed more widely if it is successful, potentially exposing us more to dangerous chemicals. There are other ways that we can mitigate our exposure to plastics and their dangerous additives.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) gave a $2.7 million grant to Iowa State University to convert plastic wastes into fatty alcohols and fatty acids, where every pound of packaging and expendable supplies could be turned into four ounces of “high-protein nourishment” for soldiers! Aside from being reminiscent of sci-fi dystopias (Soylent Green, anyone?) the health effects of converting plastics into food are truly frightening.
The world is awash in plastics. A total of 8300 million metric tons of plastic was manufactured between 1950 and 2015, and it’s getting even worse: 368 million metric tons was produced in 2019 alone. This isn’t just a catastrophe for the environment. Increasingly, research is demonstrating serious risks to human health through exposure to microplastics in the air, water, and our diet. Some estimate that we ingest about five grams of plastic each year.
Apparently the government’s answer to deal with the increasing plastic problem is to put it into our food, but this is a terrible idea as we’ll explain below. There are better ways to reduce our use of plastic and address plastic pollution. These include reducing our reliance on single use plastics like straws and utensils, avoiding plastic shopping bags and instead bringing your own cloth bags to the grocery store, avoiding food in plastic takeout containers, replacing plastic Tupperware with glass, buying boxes instead of bottles, and drinking from reusable glass water bottles rather than plastic bottles, to name just a few.
Microplastics are generated in two ways: either they are produced by industry (for use in cosmetics, for example) or as the result of the degradation of larger plastics. Even simple actions like opening plastic food wrapping with our hands or scissors produces microplastics. Microplastics persist in the environment for hundreds to thousands of years.
There are several ways in which humans are exposed to and ingest microplastics, with inhalation of indoor air and drinking water being the two dominant sources. In the air, the primary sources of microplastics are from synthetic textiles, building materials, and degradation of plastics. Both tap water and bottled water are contaminated with microplastics
Our food is another source of exposure. Microplastics have been detected in seafood, honey, milk, beer, and table salt, not to mention takeout food containers, with polystyrene containers having the highest level.
Make no mistake, microplastics are everywhere. They’ve been detected in the lowest place on the planet, the Mariana Trench, to the highest place on the planet, Mount Everest. Studies have shown a disturbing amount of microplastics in baby feces at concentrations ten times higher than adult samples, showing that microplastics are passed from mother to child through the placenta. Size and shape of the particles matter, with smaller particles having the capability of crossing the blood-brain barrier, the GI tract, and entering systemic circulation.
The health implications of these exposures are serious. Studies have found that airborne microplastics can accumulate in the lungs and may increase cancer risk. Animal and cell studies demonstrate that exposures to microplastics can result in inflammation, oxidative stress (which causes cell tissue to break down and DNA damage), and adverse effects on the immune system.
Other studies have demonstrated microplastics alter energy and lipid metabolism in offspring and subsequent generations. In fact, the global increase in plastic production correlates with increasing rates of obesity in the human population.
Unfortunately, the problems for human health do not stop there. Exposure to microplastics may seem bad enough, but their dangers are compounded because exposure to microplastics means increasing exposure to additives in plastic manufacturing, including phthalates, bisphenols like BPA, flame retardants, and a host of other chemicals, many of which are endocrine disruptors—the dangers of which we’ve documented in previous coverage.
There are several ways to reduce your exposure to plastics, though it will be impossible to eliminate your exposure completely. Cutting back our use of single-use plastics is crucial in the big picture to reduce plastics in the environment. Ten states have enacted state-wide plastic bag bans; more legislatures could be urged to follow suit. Other ways to address microplastics to protect our health include vacuuming regularly with HEPA filters to remove plastics from our living space. Some companies market air purifiers that purport to remove some microplastics from the air. Experts recommend drinking filtered tap water rather than bottled water, which tends to have far higher amounts of plastic contamination than tap water.