What’s less than 5 millimeters long, toxic, and literally everywhere? The answer, unfortunately, is microplastics: Little pieces of plastic pollution that enter our ecosystem by way of body washes, plastic water bottles, fishing nets, tires, and grocery bags, among other things. According to a recent flood of news coverage, microplastics are coursing through our veins, sluicing over the Arctic’s ice floes, and fundamentally changing the biomes of deep-sea fish, God’s coolest looking creatures. And step aside spiders, because we’re apparently eating a credit card’s worth of microplastics (that’s five grams, per the New York Post) every single week.
All of that sounds terrible—like a big, almost insurmountable threat to life itself. So, naturally, in the face of futility, people on Twitter reacted to the news cycle by getting their little jokes off.
Maybe some people find tweets like these tasteless, but I disagree—I think they taste like scrumptious, crunchy plastic. But, seriously, scientists have known about microplastics and the vague menace they present towards living creatures for a while now, even though we don’t yet know exactly how bad microplastics are for us. Researchers have theorized that they might trigger cancer or other diseases, but according to a 2022 research review published in Exposure and Health, the “health significance” of microplastics remains “unknown.” Basically, it's not really news that microplastics are bad and also inside of us—so it makes sense for people to be a little flippant towards outlets presenting new research like they’re dropping a trashy atomic bomb on readers.
So, why are they such a hot topic right now? The reemergence of conversations about microplastics, raw meat diets, and seed oils feels apt two years into a pandemic that radically changed the way most people in the U.S. live and think about health. Many of us are questioning the establishment that led to the highest COVID death toll in the world and reexamining our own habits and consumer choices on an individual level. In its most malevolent form, this thinking has given rise to the mainstreaming of anti-vaxx rhetoric. The best-case scenario for this mindset might be that a bunch of people get freaked out about microplastics and ditch their disposable water bottles and cut down on their takeout orders. Because cutting down on how much plastic one purposefully uses is the only thing any single person can do… if we make microplastics a problem of personality responsibility.
But unless we want to keep crawling towards a mirage—a healthy lifestyle that will protect us, personally, from the rapid deterioration of our planet—systemic solutions are in order. But what even are those solutions? Strict bans on plastics? The Green New Deal? Would be nice to give either of those a whirl … but, honestly, in the meantime we can just keep making jokes.
Katie Way is a senior staff writer at VICE. Follow her on Twitter.