Peel that apple? Microplastic invasion of healthy foods demands policy action

Two newly released reports warn that microplastic pollution is widespread, even in fruits and vegetables which are essential for a healthy diet.
One report published in the journal Environmental Research suggested microplastics could be absorbed by fruits and vegetables from the soil via their roots. Among the samples studied, apples recorded the highest number of microplastics. One gram of apple and carrot contained an average of 195,500 and 101,950 micro- and nano-plastic particles, respectively.
Some believe microplastics may be deposited on the peels of fruit because of plastic packaging, and that we can avoid ingesting them by peeling the fruit. But it is worrying that we can no longer avoid consuming microplastics even if we stop eating seafood and fruit peels.
Should vegetarians who want to help tackle the climate crisis by not eating carbon-intense meat such as beef worry that their plant-based diet could make them sick from microplastic-contaminated fruit and vegetables? So much for the saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”.
While plastic is durable, it is also fragile. For instance, a Styrofoam lunchbox has a useful lifespan of about an hour and then becomes a piece of problematic plastic waste. If the box does not end up in a leakproof landfill, it will slowly disintegrate into tens of millions pieces of microplastic that will eventually rest on our dinner plates.
The microplastic contamination in food and water today could be the consequence of business development without careful attention to the life cycle of the plastic products being developed.
The World Economic Forum has estimated that about 6 per cent of global oil consumption is related to plastics. Plastics both create waste pollution problems and emit greenhouse gases throughout their life cycle.
Our government should immediately conduct studies to examine whether water stored in our reservoirs and the fruit and vegetables sold locally have microplastic contamination. It should also fund research at our universities on the health effects of continuously ingesting microplastics. Businesses should cap the production of plastics and develop eco-friendly alternatives to plastic packaging, which accounts for more than 40 per cent of global plastic use.
When humanity needs to worry about the health risks arising from eating healthy food, it is morally irresponsible for leaders to focus only on fighting economic and political battles. They must pay urgent attention to the environmental health crisis.
Edwin Lau Che-feng,
Executive Director, The Green Earth
18 July 2020 SCMP