The microplastics residing inside all of us

City talk | Cheng Huan 11 Nov 2019

In your kitchen (if you can afford such a thing with Hong Kong's crazily-priced flats), you may have a grinding or pulverizing machine. The kind of gadget that grinds food into a powder.

So, from your pocket, choose the plastic card you use the least (maybe that restaurant discount card that you've never used) and grind it into powder. Mix it with some water and swallow.

Welcome to the world of plastic food because, believe it or not, the average adult living in the rich urban world (I guess that includes Hong Kong, even after months of protests) ingests 'microplastics' the size of a credit card every week. It's a terrifying thought.

The problem is that most of the plastic we use is not stable. Thin plastic bottles leak plastic into your drink. Food, especially boil-in-the-bag food, leaches plastic. Microwave plastic on top of a dish, and it disappears completely if you cook it long enough, or more accurately, dissolves into the food you are about to eat. As my mother used to believe, glass bottles are much safer.

The World Wide Fund for Nature, which uses the giant panda as their logo, has said that without knowing it, the average person consumes, swallows, chews and eats just over 100,000 tiny items of microplastic smaller than 1 mm annually.

Those 100,000 pieces, divided by 52, equates the amount of plastic contained in a credit card each week.

Most alarmingly is the discovery that 90 percent of the 100,000 bits of microplastic we ingest are swallowed as water and only 10 percent is contained in food and other drinks.

A learned professor on the subject warns that water should never be drank from plastic bottles. It is much safer, he says, to drink tap water (and filter it for extra safety).

Rule number two is to never use plastic cutlery, even plastic chopsticks, to eat hot food, as plastic softens when heated. Also, beware of containers that are lined with plastic such as plastic coated coffee cups.

As for food, avoid what is known as the "bottom-feeders," or the clams, oysters, mussels, and flatfish that live in the mud and plastic filth on the bottom of rivers and seas.

Since learning these nasty facts about plastic, I've paid more attention to the over-indulgent use of plastic in Hong Kong's supermarkets.

Cheese is wrapped in two or even three separate layers of plastic. All drink containers are lined with plastic. All fresh food is wrapped in plastic. Even my favorite apples are gathered into plastic boxes of six.

It's going to be a huge task ridding Hong Kong of plastic.

Out on the streets, every protester carries at least one plastic bottle of water. In offices, large plastic bottles of distilled water are almost the rule. In people's homes, bottled water is also often preferred over tap water - which may come from an unpleasant concrete container sitting in the heat of the sun on the roof of the building.

The Penn State Behrend University in America conducted research on water in 259 bottles of bottled water from various countries, and found that 93 percent contained microplastics.

The good news is that so far there is no evidence that the plastics we ingest have done us any harm.

Much of it passes through our digestive system. That's especially true of the larger pieces of plastic.

Swallow a broken tip of a plastic chopstick and you can almost guarantee it will cleanly pass through your gut and not harm you.

But the tiny microplastics do not pass through. They stay in the body and nobody knows yet what trouble they might be responsible for in the future -- damaged immune systems, sexual dysfunction, cancer, deformed babies, thrombosis?

Maybe Hong Kong should be bold and ban plastic water bottles. That single act would prevent 90 percent of microplastics from entering our bodies.

A small step for mankind, a giant leap for our future health.

Cheng Huan is an author and a senior counsel who practices in Hong Kong

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