Go back

 | 29-04-2024


Earth Day 2024: “Planet vs. Plastics” – From multi-talent to insidious danger

60 percent reduction in the production of ALL plastics by 2040 required

By Alexandra Namyslowski


Earth Day has taken place worldwide on April 22nd since 1990. With this year's motto Planet vs. Plastics, the international Earth Day calls for a rethink and a 60 percent reduction in the production of ALL plastics by 2040.

How could the seemingly multi-talented plastic get so bad?  

Microplastics are solid, insoluble, particulate and non-biodegradable synthetic polymers measuring less than 5 millimeters to 1,000 nanometers.
A distinction is made between primary and secondary microplastics.
Primary microplastics of type A include particles that are already in the size range of microplastics when they enter the environment (e.g. particles used in the cosmetics and personal care industry). Primary microplastics of type B are particles that are created during the use phase (e.g. abrasion from car tires, fibers from synthetic textiles that end up in the wastewater when washed).
If larger plastic parts (e.g. plastic waste thrown into the sea or left on the beach) break down in the weathering process – due to wave movement and sunlight, among other things – secondary microplastics are created.

Small size, big problems

Particularly insidious are microplastic particles that we cannot see with the naked eye. The smaller the particles, the greater the risk that we will inhale them and ingest them in other ways. This is worrying for three reasons, among others:

1. Plastic parts tend to leach the chemicals they contain.

2. They transport microbes such as viruses and bacteria.

3. Researchers are only just beginning to investigate what this means for organisms. In hermit crabs, microplastics impair their perception (collecting and processing information) and disrupt behaviors that are vital to survival. Microplastics have already been found in human stomachs, blood, lungs and breast milk. The effects of this are only just being researched. However, it still seems more sensible to reduce the consumption of plastic and promote the development of alternative materials than to wait for the answer. Previous findings are food for thought: people with arterial plaques containing microplastics had a risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke that was about four times higher than people with plastic-free plaques.
In another experiment, mice were given water containing microplastics over a period of three weeks. The microplastics made their way from the gastrointestinal tract into the brain by surrounding themselves with cholesterol molecules, which they smuggled through the otherwise difficult-to-pass blood-brain barrier - like a Trojan horse. Depending on the age of the mice, the microplastics caused different changes. Older mice in particular showed behavioral patterns that resembled dementia: the animals sat up more often, as if they were getting their bearings or looking for something. The research group found it astonishing how little plastic is needed to bring about such changes.

The EarthDay team has provided further study results on the effects of microplastics on the human organism here. Simply move the mouse over the human skeleton.

Microplastics: The guest who doesn't want to leave

Now you might think that we live in a country that uses comparatively little plastic. But that's wrong. Our everyday lives are also shaped by plastic in all forms and colors. And even if we managed to live plastic-free from today, we would still have a problem for three reasons:

1. Plastic never really disappears, but breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. These little siblings are more dangerous than the visible larger parent particles.   

2. Because wind and water pick up these particles in urban areas and transport them – just like Sahara dust in the Amazon rainforest or to us in Germany – even to the most deserted areas of the planet. Europe's microplastics have already infiltrated the Arctic. Researchers have also been able to detect microplastics in rainwater and air samples in 11 national parks and protected areas in the American West. Microplastics from sources such as polyester clothing accounted for 66 % of the synthetic material in rainwater and 70 % in air samples. 

3. Rain transports the microplastics from the air into the soil. Here it disrupts the next important cycles by clogging the digestive tract of small animals, such as worms. The soil is therefore no longer well managed and is less fertile. The chemicals contained on and in these microplastic parts also have an impact on the soil. Negative effects on the germination rate and growth of grass have been proven. Plastic film residues promote the formation of channels and thus the transport of water, thus contributing to greater evaporation and drying out of the soil.   

What can we do to avoid microplastics?

1. Determine the level of knowledge

First of all, we should consider how little most people know about this important topic. The international Earth Day website offers various quizzes on different sub-topics. Super exciting.

2. Expand your knowledge
To understand what impact your own consumer behavior has on water consumption (quantity) and pollution (quality), the water traffic light from Weltfriedensdienst e. V. is suitable, for example.

3. Change your consumer behavior
The following 3 tips:

1. Buy unpackaged
Shop at the weekly market, in unpackaged stores or just buy loose fruit and vegetables. The latter is now also possible in some discount stores.

2. Don't buy clothes made of synthetic fibers
Don't buy fast fashion textiles, but rent second-hand clothes, sew clothes yourself or have them sewn. Avoid artificial fibers, your skin will be happy and you'll need less deodorant.

3. Reduce cleaning products and cosmetic products
Instead of hoarding a product for every "application", it's better to use just a handful of cleaners. This will solve 99 % of all cleaning challenges. When using it, make sure you use it sparingly, make your own cleaning products, dose according to the water hardness and the degree of dirt (powder or liquid products are often better than overdosed tabs). And by the way: If you avoid the additional pollution of the water by fabric softener, you can also save yourself peelings. Because the towels are then simply naturally rough. And what applies to cleaning products also applies to cosmetics: The following self-experiment shows that you don't need any shower gel to not "smell".


Companies play a crucial role in reducing plastic

Sustainable behavioral changes at an individual level are important. Nevertheless, it should be clear that companies have a key role to play here. And this does not just apply to companies in the packaging, chemicals or textile industries. Every company uses water. How much it uses and what it pollutes is crucial. Companies must answer the question, at the latest through the CSRD, of what influence their business activities have on water and what influence the availability and quality of water has on their business activities.

We have summarized here how we are helping the issue of water to gain more of a foothold in companies.