First, it was found in human stool, then in placentas, and now in blood. It is safe to say that microplastic has infiltrated basically every aspect of our lives, and the thought of constantly being in touch with microplastic definitely gives me an ick. Microplastics are found in growing quantities in the ocean. According to the UN, there are as many as 51 trillion microplastic particles in the seas, 500 times more than stars in our galaxy. So, today we are going to take a look at the most common sources of microplastic, what we can do, and how to avoid it. Easy peasy.
Plastic does not break down, it is a fossil material, however, it does break into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic. Microplastics are the very smallest (generally less than 5 millimeters in size) plastic particles that can originate from a variety of sources of plastic. Lots of conditions can make plastic break down into microplastics, from wear and tear and washing to sun, wind, and ocean waves.
We’re also looking at primary and secondary microplastics. Primary microplastics are specifically manufactured to be small, and they serve specific functions in various consumer products, like cosmetics, and are estimated to represent between 15-31% of microplastics in the oceans. Meanwhile, secondary microplastic is the result of the degrading larger plastic like a plastic bottle degrading over time in the ocean. Secondary particles account for 69-81% of microplastics found in the oceans
Microplastic has been detected in everything from the tiniest marine organisms like plankton, to the largest animals on earth. Microplastic is evident in commercial seafood, as well as drinking water. Furthermore, our water treatment facilities are not designed to effectively filter microplastics, and as such, they end also end up in human bodies.
As an emerging field of study, not a lot is known about microplastics and their impacts yet and scientists are still working out the long-lasting effects of microplastics, both in the environment, as well as in our bodies.
- This year, in a paper published in Environment International, researchers found plastic in the blood of 17 of 22 study participants or about 77 percent.
- Last year, a study found microplastics in human placentas. Microplastics were found in all placental portions: maternal, fetal, and amniochorial membranes. Microplastics carry with them substances that act as endocrine disruptors and could cause long-term effects on human health.
- And in 2019, various microplastics were detected in human stool.
I found this article about microplastics from ThisIsPlastic.com, which is a site managed by plastic manufacturers, and their articles seem to focus a lot on how microplastic is not a problem, and we should be worried. While the sources they are citing specifically state that more research is needed, that we do not yet know the long-lasting effects of microplastic particles, and so far it seems to not be harmful, but there is no way of knowing at this point. And while I definitely do not believe in panicking over these effects, I also don’t see not caring about it at all as a reasonable approach. Especially because plastics often contain additives, such as stabilizers or flame-retardants, and other possibly toxic chemical substances that may be harmful to the animal or human ingesting them.
“The evidence about nano- and microplastics remains uncertain, and it is by its nature complex, but so far there is no good reason to think they pose widespread risks to humans or the environment.”
MOST COMMON SOURCES:
Mismanaged waste: There is a general understanding that most of the plastics contaminating the world’s ocean originate from mismanaged plastic wastes aka secondary microplastic (consumer waste, fishing gear, garbage islands, etc). Most recent reports on microplastics focus almost exclusively on the quantification of these secondary sources and on waste reduction and management. Between 4.8 and 12.7 Mtons of plastic are released globally into the oceans every year because of mismanaged waste.
Synthetic textiles (35%): synthetic textiles are made from plastic, polyester, acrylic, nylon, etc are all derived from plastic components, and whenever we use wear, wash or dry these materials they release microplastic. The yearly consumption of fiber for apparel amounts to 69.7 million tons globally – around 11.0 kg per capita (2010). Synthetic fibers represent almost two-thirds (60.1 %) of this consumption (FAO/ICAC, 2013).
Tyres (28%): Tyre dust will then either be spread by the wind or washed off the road by rain. Both Norwegian and Swedish researchers have pointed out that a large fraction of particles found in the sea seem to originate from car tyres
City dust (24%): this category includes sources that are rather small by themselves, but in this collective category this absolutely adds up. It includes abrasion of objects (like footwear and cooking utensils). Abrasion of infrastructure (household dust, artificial lawns, habours, and building coatings). As well as intentional pouring of detergents.
Road markings (7%): the paints we use for road markings contain synthetic polymers, and whenever cars drive on the roads, small particles are constantly released into the environment.
Marine coatings (3.7%): Several types of plastics are used for marine coatings including mostly polyurethane and epoxy coatings. Primary microplastics are released from commercial and leisure boats during building, maintenance, repair, or use.
Personal care products (2%): Plastic microbeads are used as ingredients in personal care and cosmetic products for a variety of purposes such as sorbent phase for the delivery of active ingredients, exfoliation, or viscosity. Some products contain as much plastic added as ingredients as the plastic in which they are packaged. These represent up to 10% of the product weight and several thousand microbeads per gram of product.
HOW TO AVOID:
- Tap water filter: According to Tapp Water, microplastics are in as much as 94% of U.S. tap water, and 72% of tap water in Europe. Most carbon block water filters can remove microplastics, and biodegradable coconut shell-based carbon block filters may also be effective.
- Drink tap water rather than bottled water: On average, however, bottled water contains 22 times more microplastic particles than tap water does! If you only drank from bottled water, you would consume 130,000 microplastic particles per year just from drinking water, compared with 4,000 particles per year from tap water. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.est.9b01517
- Avoid beauty products with microbeads: while these products are banned in many places now, they are still in circulation. Plastic beads are used to exfoliate in scrubs, they can also be found in some toothpaste. When using these products we ingest the particles, or we flush them out into the water systems.
- Use less plastic in your daily life: simply using less plastic is a good idea.
- Reduce or refuse meat, dairy, fish, and seafood: Since microplastics seem to be entering the food chain, limiting your consumption of meat and fish if you can, may help reduce your exposure.
- Air dry your clothes, and wash less and consciously: washing and drying synthetic fibers may release over 700,000 microplastic fibers into the environment – but air-drying clothes, or simply reducing their time in the dryer, can help cut back on microplastics produced by clothes washing. You can also use a guppy friend, a particle filtration bag when washing synthetics to reduce the number of particles that are generated.
- Take the train: or any way of transportation that does not involve reels with tyres – overall a bike is still better obviously, but for longer distances, it is less impactful to take the train than the bus.
- Ditch glitter: Glitter is made of either PVC or PET (both types of plastic), and when we wear or use it, it shreds, everywhere… You can find plant-based glitters which is an exception.