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Scientists study the impact of hidden plastic to curb pollution

Microplastics -- tiny fragments of plastic contained in microbeads and microfibers of everyday household products -- have infiltrated the landscape, oceans and living organisms. By studying microplastics, scientists hope to better understand their impact and how to limit their damage. Andrea Thompson, associate editor for sustainability for Scientific American, joins Hari Sreenivasan for more.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Plastic pollution is more than bags and bottles and things we can see. A good deal of plastic pollution exists in things we can't see. They're called microplastics and new scientific research is underway to find out what impact they might have on humans and the environment. This coming week PBS NewsHour is launching the series "The Plastic Problem," a deep dive into the dangers of plastics and possible solutions to the problems they present.

    I spoke recently with Andrea Thompson, Associate Editor for sustainability at Scientific American about her series on microplastics.

    Andrea Thompson, thanks for joining us. We've heard these stories about whales beaching up on shore with 17 pounds of plastic in their belly and we've heard about the damage that plastic does in the oceans. What you're focusing on something much more interesting, which is microplastics on a very, very small scale. Tell us, first of all, what is a microplastic and why is it dangerous?

  • ANDREA THOMPSON:

    Microplastics are, they cover a huge range of sizes, which is one of the things that makes them so worrisome. They are five millimeters down to maybe the size of a virus. So that's a huge, huge scale. And that small scale means that they can be ingested by a wide range of animals — from tiny plankton, which are the basis of the ocean food chain to even whales, to us. They're the fragments of the Plastic debris we see around us — bottles, bags things like that that gets broken down in the environment by sunlight, waves, wind as well as fibres coming off of our clothes, they are called micro fibres and some of the products, microbeads that are in things like toothpaste, cosmetics,

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Those exfoliation creams that have that little gritty feel. So what are the effects that it could have upstream. So say, for example, you're eating fish that came from the ocean that has microplastics in it, you might not see a chunk of plastic in the flesh but it might actually be in the system and you're consuming it?

  • ANDREA THOMPSON:

    That's one of the biggest areas of scientific research right now is what that might actually be doing to us in our system. A lot of it depends on how much of it we're actually ingesting every day. There's possibilities that you know if it's small enough it could penetrate the gut lining and get into other systems. It can cause inflammation, which can lead to other health problems.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You also took a look at plastics in soil. How does it get there? It's not just the stuff that we're leaving in the landfill.

  • ANDREA THOMPSON:

    Right. There are a couple of, several ways it can get there. One, and I think it's one that you know people aren't really familiar with, is that they, the things that are cleared out of wastewater and wastewater treatment plants. this mix, the sludge that gets treated and then is often applied to agricultural fields because it's very rich nutrients but it also happens to be very rich in microplastics, particularly microfibres from, with testing that's been done so far. And so scientists right now are trying to figure out OK, as for ploughing soil and other things, how deep is that microfiber getting into the soil? Is it washing back into waterways? Is it impacting the health of the soil that were growing our food in and therefore you know how, the ability to grow crops and things like that. They have shown that earthworms can eat these and that that could travel up the food chain as those creatures get eaten by other ones.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    As we look at the scale of this problem it's as part of a series of stories that you're writing. What are the solutions here? How do we even start to tackle this?

  • ANDREA THOMPSON:

    Most of the scientists I've talked to are pretty okay, if not full supporters of a lot of these bans that are being done against plastic bags, straws because those, they consider those the low hanging fruit easy things to do. We don't need those things but there are also the plastics things that we need to use plastic for, but we're not considering when we make these and design these things, what happens to them when we're done with them? And so that needs to start being incorporated into the design process and how we make plastics. So there are scientists doing work to actually try and make plastics that can be recycled more easily over and over again like glass can, for instance, and to try and close some of those loops in our waste system where it's escaping out into the environment. So it's a whole bunch of different things that will have to be done and us really facing that we need to kind of re-evaluate our relationship with plastic.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Andrea Thompson, Associate Editor for sustainability at Scientific American. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • ANDREA THOMPSON:

    Thanks for having me.

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