The Nation and the World

Microplastics may damage the integrity of archaeological remains

You may have heard about microplastics in cosmetic products but have you heard of them in archaeological deposits?

A research team from the University of York in the U.K. has found sixteen different microplastic polymer types, located over 23 feet underground, in soil deposits that had been excavated in the 1980s. The March 22 2024 statement says that microplastics have been identified in both “contemporary and archived soil samples.” John Schofield, a professor and director of studies at the University of York’s Department of Archaeology adds, “Here we see our historic heritage incorporating toxic elements.”

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic (five millimeters or less) that have been broken off from larger plastics. They are often found in personal care products, like exfoliants. These plastics drain and enter waterways, taking centuries to decompose, which then builds up waste. The toxins in plastic are absorbed by rainwater and end up in streams, soil, and groundwater. Wildlife get trapped in this waste and are strangled to death, or consume the plastic, which can cause abrasions to their digestive tracts and can kill them, or the plastic makes them feel full and they die of starvation. 

This plastic moves up the food chain when an animal eats another animal that has consumed plastic and then that animal is eaten by another animal, and so on until it reaches humans. The toxic chemicals that are on the plastic are also consumed by humans, over 100,000 microplastic particles every year.

While these concerns are on the topic of the environment and human health, this study reveals that microplastics can be a threat to the field of archaeology as well. The fear is that microplastics will pollute the soil with toxins that may cause organic remains to decay. In the past, artifacts have been kept in situ (which means the artifact is studied in the original place that it was found) but if soil deposits are polluted with plastics the research team is wondering if this contamination will compromise the purity of these remains if left in their original location.

Recycling may seem like the solution to plastic pollution, however, it only can improve but not solve the problem. While recycling is a good practice to do, plastics can only be recycled a few times before it is no longer usable. The problem starts with the production of these products. Environmentalists argue that consumers need to put pressure on the companies that produce and use single-use plastics in their products to switch to more sustainable options.

We can also reduce the amount of single-use plastics that we use in our day-to-day lives. Here are some simple ways we can do this: 

-Use a reusable water bottle instead of a disposable one.

– Use a mug when you can to avoid using paper cups or going to Starbucks, Dunkin, etc

– Drink loose-leaf tea as opposed to tea bags, many of which have plastic in them.

-Use Tupperware to Carry food in so that you do not need to use disposable containers

– Use condiments in bulk as opposed to individual packets 

These are small changes everyone can make to reduce their plastic use.

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