Microplastics: Sources, Effects And Solutions
What are MicroPlastics?
The almost invisible threat that is lurking in our food, drinks, air, and now our bodies. Microplastics are tiny plastic particles. Officially, they are defined as plastics less than five millimeters (0.2 inches) in diameter—smaller in diameter than the standard pearl used in jewelry. There are two categories of microplastics: primary and secondary.
Primary microplastics means plastics intentionally manufactured in microscopic size, usually out of polyethylene (or polypropylene or nylon). Primary microplastics include any plastic fragments or particles that are already 5.0 mm in size or less before entering the environment. Primary microplastics come in the form of pellets (called nurdles) used in industrial manufacturing or designed for commercial use in pharmaceutical and cosmetic products, and plastic fibres used in synthetic textiles (e.g., nylon). The best-known example of primary microplastics is microbeads which is often found in facial scrubs, and other beauty supplies.
Primary microplastics enter the environment directly through various channels—for example, product use (e.g., personal care products being washed into wastewater systems from households), unintentional loss from spills during manufacturing or transport, or abrasion during washing (e.g., laundering of clothing made with synthetic textiles).
Secondary microplastics are particles that result from the breakdown of larger plastic items, such as water bottles. These “accidental” microplastics comprise two-thirds or more of the world’s microplastics. Secondary microplastics result from the degradation (breakdown) of larger plastic products after entering the environment through exposure to natural weathering processes such as sunlight, wind abrasion and ocean waves breaking down abandoned fishing nets or discarded plastic bags. They also form from bits of rubber that wear off of tires on the road.
The Problem With Microplastics
The problem with microplastics is that—like plastic items of any size—they can take hundreds or thousands of years to decompose—and in the meantime, wreak havoc on the environment, and our bodies. Alarmingly, standard water treatment facilities cannot remove all traces of microplastics. Whether primary or secondary, between 5 and 14 million tons of microplastics end up in the ocean each year. Microplastics have been detected in marine organisms from plankton to whales, in commercial seafood, and even in drinking water. Plastics and the toxic chemicals that adhere to them can not only harm sea creatures that consume them, they also bioaccumulate.
Previous research found we inhale and ingest enough microscopic pieces of plastic to create a credit card each week. Until recently, scientists didn’t know whether those particles were entering the bloodstream. But, earlier this year, researchers found microscopic plastic particles flowing in our bloodstream for the first time.
Scientists found specific types of harm – cell death, allergic response, and damage to cell walls – were caused by the levels of microplastics that people unknowingly ingest. Based on these type of studies, researchers have hypothesized that human exposure to microplastics could lead to oxidative stress, DNA damage and inflammation, among other health problems. There is still a limited understanding of the extent of our exposure to microplastics in our bloodstream and other parts of our bodies.
The science of biodegradable and compostable plastics is constantly evolving, and new and innovative solutions could present alternatives to traditional production. But while science can help make plastics more sustainable, this isn’t the entire solution, and existing plastics in the environment must be effectively managed.
What Can You Do About MicroPlastics?
Scientific and industry breakthroughs, plastic bans, and other governmental interventions can all help to mitigate the impact of plastic on the environment. But there’s plenty that you can do yourself, at home or out-and-about, to reduce the spread of microplastics.
Cutting back on all single-use plastics (when possible), and prioritizing the need to use reusable and sustainable products daily. Avoid any products with microbeads – as they are a significant culprit – and choose natural exfoliants such as coffee, oatmeal or salt.
Materials such as glass can help to reduce the continued production of microplastics, and help to minimize your own exposure. For example, our eco-friendly, refillable system makes it effortless for you to clean sustainably by pairing reusable glass bottles with concentrated cleaning tablets that activate simply with tap water. Glass cleaning bottles help divert over a billion single-use plastic bottles from landfills and oceans. You get your bottles once in the Starter Kit, then refill and reuse them and and again.