Is life in plastic really so fantastic?Flickr / Juan Pablo Colasso

No matter how you look at it, the creation of synthetic plastics was revolutionary. By relieving pressure on scarce natural resources, such as wood, metal and ivory, synthetic substitutes released human manufacturing from the constraints imposed by nature.

Following the invention of the first fully synthetic (i.e. containing no naturally occurring molecules) plastic, Bakelite, in 1907, the 20th century saw a great explosion in the plastics industry. Modern society is now dependent on plastics, with plastic production having grown at a rate faster than any other material since 1970. It was the expansion of plastic mass production that facilitated the mainstreaming of plastic products in everyday life.

“But is life in plastic so fantastic?”

With the recent release of the Barbie movie having attracted such great media attention, environmentalists have seized the opportunity to open up a conversation about this overconsumption of plastics. Of course, Barbie dolls represent only a small fraction of all plastics produced. However, it’s still mind-blowing that since the unveiling of the iconic Barbie Doll in 1959, Mattel has produced over 1 billion Barbies globally! Even if around a tenth of these are just Kens.

But is life in plastic so fantastic? While plastics have become indispensable to modern life, they pose various risks and have a worrying environmental footprint. They are responsible for a large proportion of pollution, with approximately 400 million tonnes of plastic waste generated every year. They also contribute to global warming as fossil fuel by-products. In fact, each 182g Barbie doll is responsible for approximately 660g of carbon emissions through plastic production, doll manufacture and transport.

But less well-known are the impacts of microplastics, defined as plastic fragments less than five millimetres long. They are produced intentionally or through the degradation of larger plastics, referred to as primary or secondary microplastics, respectively.

With plastic being ubiquitous in the environment, it can come as no surprise that microplastics have been found almost everywhere on Earth and so enter our bodies through food, drink and inhalation.

So really, we’re all Barbie girls. Move over, Margot …

Microplastics are very persistent, so it is nearly impossible to remove them from the environment. And because they are difficult to detect, it’s also not possible to ascertain exactly how they affect us. This means we can’t avoid them, and we don’t understand their impact.

In 2019, researchers revealed that we may be inhaling 16.2 bits of microplastic every hour – that’s a credit card’s worth entering your respiratory system per week. Breathing has never sounded so expensive, right?

“We may be inhaling a credit card’s worth of microplastics per week”

Although we know that microplastics aren’t immediately toxic to humans, that really is all we know. In animal studies, they have been demonstrated to cause inflammation and organ damage, as well as affect metabolism, reproduction and gut bacteria. Inhaling microplastics also exposes the body to plastic additives, such as plasticisers, stabilisers and pigments. These additives can be toxicants, carcinogens or endocrine disruptors (chemicals that interfere with the hormonal system). Their effects are exacerbated by microplastics adsorbing and concentrating contaminants, which facilitate, for example, the introduction of pathogens into the body.

So, not so fantastic.

Since the discovery of microplastics deep in human airways, a computer model has been built to analyse the transport and deposition of differently shaped microplastics in the respiratory system under slow- and fast-breathing conditions. Researchers found that larger particles are most likely to be deposited, typically being left in the upper airways, including the nasal cavity and back of the throat. They also learnt that increased flow rate (essentially, faster breathing) leads to lower deposition.


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The takeaway? Well, there is real concern regarding the health impacts of exposure to airborne microplastics. Further research is required, with studies like the microplastic transport analysis described having potential in improving health risk assessment and also informing the development of therapeutics.

But in the meantime, what we do know is that the current trend of increasing plastic consumption is dangerous. It’s very difficult (basically impossible) to just cut plastic out of our life, so what can we do? Well, a start would be making a conscious effort to reduce our personal consumption. You can do this by using reusable products (bottles, cups, bags etc), avoiding single-use plastics, and choosing biodegradable options.

And if you really loved the Barbie movie, don’t go and buy the merch, just watch it again. It’s healthier.