Just as the name suggests, microplastics are minute plastic particles typically less than 5mm in size. They are a direct result of plastic-based materials, such as textiles, the fishing and agricultural industries and general waste. Microplastics are a huge concern to human and marine life as well as the natural environment because of just how widespread their presence is. They are in our oceans, in the air, in the rain, and most worryingly, inside us and other living creatures as we unknowingly ingest them.
Microplastics can be categorised into two groups; primary and secondary.
Many primary microplastics are specifically manufactured to be minute in size. They are designed for commercial uses and serve a specific function, for example, microbeads and other scrubbing agents in cosmetic products such as shower gels and exfoliants. Primary microplastics can also come from the abrasion of bigger plastic items during manufacturing or use. Other sources include ingredients in cigarette filters and erosion from car tires on the road. Depending on the way they are produced, synthetic fibers used in clothing and fishing nets account for around 35% of the microplastics that are found in the ocean today. During washing, tiny microfibres are released from these synthetic materials and get flushed away with the water from our washing machines.
Secondary microplastics form when larger plastic items degrade into smaller fragments once they are exposed to weathering, for example, the sun’s UV rays, wind and ocean waves. They are often a result of mismanaged waste. For example, discarded plastic bags, bottles, food containers, tea bags or fishing nets. Another significant source of microplastics which often goes unacknowledged is paint. It has been found that 1.5-2.25 million tonnes of microplastics in the ocean come from paint on steel surfaces, like boats, shipping vessels and construction assets.
The problem with all microplastics, whether primary or secondary, is that although plastic may disintegrate (incredibly slowly over hundreds to thousands of years), it never fully decomposes. This is the nature of the material, and the amount of it on this planet is only ever increasing. Almost 400 million tonnes of plastics are produced each year, a figure which has been predicted to more than double by 2050. With industrial revolutions, mass-production and the growth of fast-fashion, plastic has penetrated our everyday lives. It’s used for our clothing, homewares, household items, large appliances, children’s toys; the list goes on.
Trillions of microplastic particles are currently present in the marine environment, washing into rivers and oceans through our water systems, posing both physical and toxicological risks. They have been found lodged in the digestive tracts and tissues of marine animals and just walking along the shoreline you’ll often find tiny specks of multicoloured plastic in the sand. While research has suggested that microplastics don’t cause harm to marine life, it doesn’t take a scientist to know that it does no good, and certainly doesn’t belong in our ocean or waterways. What’s more, as these fish, crustaceans and other living organisms carrying plastic travel up the food chain, it will inevitably infiltrate human food sources.
Microplastics can directly affect humans in other ways, too. For example, microplastics can be found in our food. Microplastics can bioaccumulate right up through the entire food chain from the ocean. Even table salt has been found to have traces of microplastics in it. Microplastics are also a source of air pollution due to the dust that comes from vehicle tyres and other fibrous particles which become airborne. Again, research on the effects of inhaling microplastics is little to unknown, but it’s not natural.
So, what can we do to reduce the harmful effects of this pollutant?
- Avoid single-use plastic altogether. Toothbrushes, shaving razors, straws, eating utensils, carrier bags, pens – if it’s made of single-use plastic, think twice before purchasing it and remember that they will inevitably become microplastics eventually.
- Avoid any products with microbeads as they are a significant culprit and choose natural exfoliants such as coffee, oatmeal or salt.
- Stop buying plastic bottled water and carry a reusable bottle instead.
- Wash your clothes better in order to decrease the amount of microfibres which come off them. For example, when you do wash them use a Guppy Bag to catch microfibres that shed during washing.
- Take part in beach cleanups. They may seem like a speck in the ocean when considering the stats, but every little helps.
- Dispose of your rubbish responsibly by recycling where possible and avoiding littering.
- Use public transportation as much as possible instead of driving.
Author: Eva Ramirez