I was lucky enough to spend the last two months involved in an EA Fellowship, facilitated by the Effective Altruism group in The Hague. Throughout, as we were exploring diverse dilemmas and discussing the prioritisation of these causes, one global issues stuck out to me above all - microplastics.

Even though plastic pollution is acknowledged to be a pressing problem, with many creative efforts made to mitigate it - such as the EU’s Climate Neutrality Goals - microplastics are a byproduct of plastic pollution which pose a danger that is fairly new and not so much researched or spoken about, and whose long-term effects are unknown to us currently.

In this exploration of why microplastics should matter to EAs, I will be using the ITN framework; more can be found about it under the eponymous topic on the present forum. However, in contrast with the quantitative, mathematics-based method that the ITN framework uses, I will be taking a qualitative approach to the ITN framework on microplastics. Essentially, I will try to use words instead of numbers to explain why microplastics should matter to EAs.

  1. Microplastics

Microplastics are plastic pieces smaller than 5 millimetres, which come from the breakdown of plastic objects. They encompass a variety of chemical and biological components.

According to the National Ocean Service of the US, microplastics pose a danger to our ocean and aquatic life. In 2021, Japanese scientists estimated 24.4 trillion microplastics in the world’s upper oceans.

Moreover, researchers have identified a risk to human health as well, which is problematic considering ‘humans constantly inhale and ingest microplastics’ (Vethaak et al., 2021).

Some years ago, when the scarcity of research on the matter was even more profound, the mayor worry was the danger of ingesting microplastic through shellfish. A team at the University of Plymouth debunked this, proving that one would inhale significantly more particles by breathing air in a typical home - fibres shed by their own clothes, carpets, and upholstery (Parker, National Geographic, 2023).

In 2022, scientists in the Netherlands and the U.K. found microplastics in living humans - in the lungs of surgical patients, and in the blood from anonymous donors.

Aside from the mere contamination, plastics are produced using a plethora of chemicals, which are regulated to different degrees in different countries. That is why the physiological and toxicological effects need to be measured as well; and that can draw guidance from research into the effects of microplastics onto animals.

  1. The ITN Framework

This section is based on the Forum Topic ‘ITN framework’.

The ITN framework is based on an estimation of the ‘importance, tractability and neglectedness’ of a cause.

2.1 Importance

As a byproduct of plastic pollution, it stems from a global issue that affects us all and it represents that as well. Plastic pollution has already shown its harms, suffocating lands and overpopulating bodies of water, being overly present in the city landscape from the Global North to the Global South.

As such, microplastics pose a problem equally, if not more pressing than plastic pollution, through its very nature - it is invisible. Microplastics pose a threat to human life - even if not imminent, they would still bring about a lot of suffering as a result of health issues. If there is one lesson we can learn from the general view on the crisis that Covid was, it’s that society does not care about an invisible threat. Most will have a problem with pollution as long as they can see it. Once it’s out of sight - or too small to be observed with the naked eye - it no longer is a priority.

Aside from the potential for neglectedness, which should show that the problem is important in and of itself - if a problem isn’t important, it doesn’t pose such an issue if it is ignored - microplastics are a currently under-researched topic that could prevent future health problems and possible suffering in the world.

2.2 Tractability

Microplastics can be monitored and observed, as highlighted in the aforementioned discoveries in living humans. There are studies examining the properties and characteristics of certain types of microplastics, as seen in Yin et. al (2023), and the impact of microplastics has been measured in relation with many species other than humans.

2.3 Neglectedness

Vethaak et al. (2021) acknowledges that one of the biggest questions pertaining to microplastics is the lack of research into their effects on humans exposed to them.

The transitory capabilities of microplastics are generally attributed to the size of the particles, but there are knowledge gaps pertaining to the ability of microplastics to penetrate certain types of tissue, and to the ‘absorption, distribution, metabolism, and excretion’ (Vethaak et al., 2021).

Currently, there are no studies that document a connection between microplastics and negative effects on human health, even though in laboratory research, microplastics have proven to cause damage to human cells - either by allergic reaction or cell death.

On top of that, all efforts against microplastics are focused on legislation or policies against wasteful plastic use or for plastic use reduction, so it would be interesting to see whether researchers can come up with technology to get rid of microplastics. There is much left to be explored when it comes to this topic.

  1. Conclusion

Maybe microplastics aren’t the number 1 cause to pursue, but I believe that they are a problem that is worthy of EAs’ attention and dedication. With so much room for research, it is only a matter of time before some team of determined EAs embark on a research journey together, or manage to fund a research initiative to figure out how microplastics can affect the human organism.

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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:51 AM

Thanks for writing this. I think people might find it helpful if you made some estimate of the QALY impact of microplastics, and maybe described what you think are some of the more tractable interventions to affect it.