A study suggests that microplastics in paint is the top pollutant in our oceans, and that the #1 cause is the teardown and disposal of bridges and buildings. A report issued by the Lausanne, Switzerland-based group Environmental Action states that paint particles are the oceans’ largest microplastics polluter, comprising a significantly higher percentage of this substance than any other source. Much of this comes from architectural paints used on bridges, houses, and other structures, and even two percent has come from road striping paint. The majority (but not the vast majority) of these paints come from east Asia.
On average, stated the report, paint contains 37% plastic polymers, and as of 2019, was responsible for 1.9 million tons, nearly 60% of all microplastics dumped into the oceans. An article published by Trillions Intelligence Network states that this can lead to multiple environmental dangers, because “microplastics … often include chemical polymers which can induce cancer, damage endocrine systems, and slowly kill fish, mammals, and even birds which eat those who have consumed the plastic.”
Paint enters into the environment during the application, maintenance, and general wear and tear, and then in a big way when a painted object, such as a bridge or building, is destroyed. The study, as reported by Trillions, continues that paint is often mishandled throughout its life cycle, for example, that often unused paint, while disposed of legally, is simply dumped into sewage systems, “because it does not rise to the level of chemical toxicity considerations.”
The organization stated this report was not intended to criticize the paint industry, but that by understanding the source of the problem, efforts could be made to better manage manufacturing and application to do less harm to the environment. As microplastics are increasingly found in marine life, many of which are consumed by other animals and humans, scientists are finding it more important than ever to discover the causes of and remedies for this situation.
“This report should be a wake-up call for the paint industry,” said Declan McAdams, a coauthor of the report, in a press release. “It’s important that the industry finds less harmful and more sustainable alternatives. We need a systemic change in the use and management of paint, now that these findings have shone a light on the extent of the pollution being caused.”
Where do we go from here?
The report continues that the elimination of careless painting practices, as well as the elimination of paint itself when possible (for example, producing building materials that don’t need painting), would go a long way towards tackling microplastic leakage and plastic pollution in general.
As an example of the problem, scientists who have been researching the level of microplastics in Antarctic waters found that when they took samples, while they showed low levels of microplastics, more than half were from paint on the very ship they were sailing, which required them to change their methods to obtain a more accurate reading.
Seen from seas to mountain tops
It wasn’t always this way. Years ago, as reported in an article published by the Sierra Club, natural latex from rubber trees was used to provide paint with its elasticity. Manufacturers turned to synthetic additives when raw materials became scarce during World War Two. While these additives make paint more durable and washable, they also added more plastic into the environment.
Microplastics are everywhere — they’ve been found deep in the oceans, on the top of Mount Everest and even in your poop. Some have made efforts to produce paint without using plastic, for example from plant-based materials. However with as much paint as is out there, this isn’t a problem that will be solved anytime soon.