Will there be a single plastic-free drop to drink — anywhere — in 10 years?

Photo by Sören Funk on Unsplash.

Climate change gets a great deal of attention from the global media in 2023, though not nearly enough according to some world authorities, environmentalists, and activist groups.

Though preserving rainforests, saving the whales, preventing acid rain, closing the hole in the ozone layer, and nuclear de-proliferation have gone out of fashion, climate change isn’t the only concern shared by environmentalists, naturalists, and would-be sensible stewards of Mother Earth everywhere.

Single-use plastics — and their tiny, ubiquitous cousins, microplastics — have created a mountain of environmental concerns and contamination. The current generation of humanity will be the first to grapple with the fallout from these forgotten cast-offs of the modern, post-industrialized world.

Most of the plastic we’ve used once and thrown away likely still exists — somewhere. In a landfill, or in a waterway in Malaysia — though many countries like China and Malaysia stopped accepting U.S. recyclables several years ago.

Microplastics are proving particularly challenging for the environment. They are turning up everywhere, including the unlikeliest of places. From the top of Mount Everest to the lowest depths of the world’s oceans, microplastics have made a comfortable home alongside humanity, like poorly domesticated pests.

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that measure less than 5 millimeters in size. They are the result of the breakdown or fragmentation of larger plastic items, such as bottles, bags, packaging materials, and synthetic textiles. Microplastics can also be intentionally manufactured for certain industrial applications, such as in cosmetics and personal care products.

These minuscule plastic particles come in various forms, including fibers, fragments, pellets, foams, and microbeads. They can be found in a wide range of environments, including oceans, rivers, lakes, soils, and even the air we breathe. Microplastics are considered pervasive pollutants because of their widespread distribution and persistence in the environment.

Microplastics pose extraordinary environmental and health concerns. Tiny plastic particles have been detected in food and drinking water, raising potential human exposure and associated health risks.

Efforts are underway to reduce the generation of microplastics and mitigate their impact. This includes strategies such as improving waste management systems, promoting recycling and circular economy practices, and raising awareness about the environmental consequences of plastic pollution.

One nation, in particular, has been achieving success in recent years; Israel.

Plastic pollution is everywhere,” say Israeli scientists studying the long-term environmental impact of microplastics.

Microplastic waste exposure on Israeli beaches ‘inevitable’” reported the Jerusalem Post on October 30, 2022.

Israeli coastline is contaminated with over two tons of microplastics, researchers discover,” reported Tel-Aviv University on October 31, 2022. The news was a scary Halloween present, but it wasn’t a surprise.

Still, the scope and urgency of the problem demanded, and received, more intense scrutiny from Israel’s scientific community and the start-up nation.

Israel’s scientific and technological community is playing an active role in researching and developing solutions to tackle plastic pollution. Several research institutions, startups, and organizations in Israel are at the forefront of innovation in the field of sustainable materials and waste management.

Researchers in Israel are exploring the development of biodegradable materials as alternatives to conventional plastics. They are investigating various sources for biopolymers, including plant-based materials, such as cellulose, starch, and algae. These biodegradable materials have the potential to replace single-use plastics.

There is a growing focus on sustainable packaging materials in Israel. Researchers are exploring alternatives to traditional plastic packaging, such as compostable materials and edible coatings. These innovations aim to reduce plastic packaging waste and offer more environmentally friendly options for various industries, including food and beverage.

Given the pervasive nature of microplastics, Israeli researchers are working on methods to detect and remove these tiny particles from water bodies. They are developing advanced filtration systems and analytical techniques to identify and quantify microplastics in water samples. Additionally, research is being conducted on the potential use of natural or engineered materials to capture microplastics from water sources.

From creating new types of biodegradable plastics derived from natural sources to converting plastic garbage into clean energy, Israel is helping to lead the way on the issue of microplastics.

This is a good thing for everyone — because the scourge of microplastics isn’t confined to Israeli beaches and Mount Everest.

“Garbage Patches in Our Backyard: Surprising Microplastics Contamination in Freshwater Lakes and Reservoirs,” reported Science Tech Daily only this week. “Research from the Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network finds that freshwater environments like lakes and reservoirs have higher concentrations of plastic than oceanic garbage patches, with human interaction identified as the main contributing factor. The study stresses the vulnerability of densely populated areas and water bodies with high human influence to plastic contamination.”

In the words of one researcher: “We found microplastics in every lake we sampled.”

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)