Singapore: Plastic ingestion by people could amount to eating a credit card each week

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/ANN) - Study by Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)  found that on average, people could be ingesting about 5g of plastic every week. 

Fancy a pinch of plastic with that shellfish dish?

New research combining the results of more than 50 studies globally has found that on average, people could be ingesting about 5g of plastic every week - equivalent to a credit card - in the air they breathe, the food they eat and, especially, the water they drink.

This amounts to about 100,000 tiny pieces of plastic - or 250g - every year, said the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the University of Newcastle on Wednesday (June 12). The study was commissioned by WWF and done by the Australian university.

"These findings must serve as a wake-up call to governments. If we don't want plastic in our bodies, we need to stop the millions of tonnes of plastic that continue leaking into nature every year," said WWF International director general Marco Lambertini.

To tackle the plastic crisis, he said, urgent action at the government, business and consumer levels was needed, as well as a global treaty with global targets to address plastic pollution.

The research was the first to combine insights from the studies across the world on the ingestion of plastic by people, said the WWF.

Out of a total of 52 studies it included in its calculations, 33 looked at plastic consumption through food and beverages. These studies highlighted a list of common food and beverages containing microplastics, such as drinking water, beer, shellfish and salt.

The WWF, however, noted the findings may be an underestimate because the microplastic contamination of staple foods such as milk, rice, wheat, corn, bread, pasta and oils has yet to be studied.

Microplastics are plastic particles under 5mm in size, though they can be much smaller.

The largest source of plastic ingestion was drinking water, with plastic found in water including groundwater, surface water, tap water and bottled water all over the world.

Another key source was shellfish, accounting for as much as 0.5g a week. Shellfish are eaten whole, including their digestive system, after a life in plastic-polluted seas.

But inhalation represented a negligible proportion of microplastics entering the human body, though this might vary heavily depending on the environment. Results from 16 papers focusing on outdoor and indoor air quality showed that indoor air is more heavily plastic polluted than the outdoors, owing to limited air circulation indoors and the fact that synthetic textiles and household dust are among the most important sources of airborne microplastics.

While the university's effort represents a synthesis of the best available data, it builds on a limited set of evidence, and comes with limitations, the WWF acknowledged in the report "No plastic in nature: assessing plastic ingestion from nature to people", which was prepared by strategy consulting firm Dalberg Advisors.

It also said further studies are needed to get a precise estimate.

The WWF said scientists are working to obtain more precise information on pollution from plastic, how it is distributed and how much is consumed.

Some important areas the research community is exploring include mapping the size and weight distribution of plastic waste particles and how plastic particles − when consumed by an animal - travel into muscle tissue.

For instance, scientists are tracking plastic in the oceans to create a 3D map of ocean plastic litter, it added.