Microplastics are everywhere - in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the clothes we wear, and the food we eat. Their tiny size has helped them sneak their way to the summits of the tallest mountains and the deepest oceans. And that’s definitely not good news for the planet.
The negative impact microplastics have on aquatic life, as well as human health, has made this stealth pollutant one of the biggest threats to emerge from the plastic pollution crisis.
In this blog, let’s learn more about microplastics, where they come from, and what steps we can take to stay clear of them in our daily lives.
What Are Microplastics? Where Do They Come From?
As the name suggests, microplastics are ultra-small pieces of plastic, measuring less than 5mm or, say, as long as about a grain of rice.
Some microplastics are produced small on purpose, such as microbeads found in exfoliating gels, plastic pellets, or abrasives used in sandblasting. These are known as primary microplastics since they are already 5mm small when they enter the environment.
The other type, secondary microplastics, results from the fragmentation of plastic waste due to natural weathering.
The worrying part is that microplastics keep breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces until they start resembling dust particles or nanoplastics. These measure less than a micrometer, making them virtually inseparable from the environment.
In order to reduce microplastics that end up in waterways and human bodies (we’ll come to that in a bit), we need to understand where they come from.
Synthetic Textiles: Fabrics like polyester, nylon, and acrylic have a plastic origin and are known to shed microfibers. In fact, every time we do a load of laundry, anywhere from 650,000 to 1.5 million microfibers get released into the environment in the form of wastewater.
Car Tire Debris: When vehicles speed up and brake, their tires release a significant amount of plastics on the road surface. This tire dust is a mix of synthetic rubber, fillers, and road particles that gets blown away by wind or washed away by rainfall, polluting the air and waterways. About 6.1 million tonnes of tire wear particles are generated globally each year and have been found in the most pristine parts of the world, including the polar regions.
Personal Care Products: While tire abrasion and synthetic fabric shedding produce secondary microplastics, personal care products like gel exfoliants, toothpaste, lip balms, and deodorants are a major source of primary microplastics. In other words, the plastic they contain is intentionally manufactured to be small-sized to add a certain texture to the product. Some of these particles are ingested or absorbed by us during the application, while others get washed down the drain, making their way to the rivers and seas.
Paint: This one is a shocker, and if we had written this blog a couple of years ago, we might not even have listed this here. Turns out, paint is one of the biggest sources of microplastic found in the oceans, as revealed by a recent study. In fact, paint accounts for 1.9 million tonnes of microplastics leaked into the oceans, much more than tire dust and textiles.
How Microplastics Impact the Environment
According to United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), our everyday items like clothes, cosmetics, and cigarettes leak an enormous amount of microplastics into the environment. And UNEP minces no words in calling microplastics a growing threat to humans and the planet’s health.
Microplastics are known to wreak havoc in marine systems. These tiny fragments of plastic make their way into the oceans from plumbing systems, industrial production waste, and sewage treatment plant sludge, among many other sources. When inside, this toxic waste is ingested by aquatic life, such as fish, birds, and plants, causing them physical and chemical harm.
And it doesn’t stop there. Microplastics make their way back to humans through the seafood we eat.
How Microplastics Are Affecting Human Health
Of all the research that has happened to study the effects of microplastics on human health, every one of them echoed more or less the same warning: microplastics are capable of impacting human genetics, brain development, and respiration, and not in a good way.
Another interesting study led by Evangelos Danopoulos of Hull York Medical School, UK, investigated the effects of microplastics on human cells in a lab environment. According to their findings, the amount of microplastics we consume through food is enough to cause damage to our cells and trigger allergic reactions.
Worried? Don’t be. While we can’t control what has happened in the past, we can certainly be a part of the solution by cutting back on our individual microplastic emissions.
How to Avoid Microplastics: 7 Ways to Help Limit the Spread of Microplastics
1. Eliminate Microplastics in Your Laundry
Many brands still sell clothing made from polyester because it’s cheap and multi-purpose. However, the microfibers that are shed from these textiles are thinner than strands of hair, making it very easy to travel through the washing machine filters, escape the treatment plants, and enter the oceans.
Installing a filter designed to catch microfibers shed during the washing cycle is a good idea. You could also get a laundry ball that tangles the fibers and stops them from breaking away from the clothes. Picking cooler and faster washing cycles and running fuller loads are other surefire ways to reduce laundry-related microplastic pollution.
2. Filter Your Water Before Drinking
A WHO report highlighted the presence of microplastics in our tap water as well as bottled water. Meanwhile, a 2018 study showed that in comparison to bottled water, tap water typically contains less amount of microplastic.
While the jury is still out on whether tap water is safer to consume, we know one thing for sure: to avoid bottled water as it is contaminated with microplastics. As for tap water, you can make it free of microplastics by installing a good-quality water filter. You can explore purification systems that use carbon block filters that can catch particles as small as 0.5 microns.
3. Opt For Natural Fabrics
Another way to reduce microfiber from textiles is to stop buying clothes and bedding made from synthetic fibers like polyester and acrylic. Instead, choose brands that rely on all-natural materials such as cotton, silk, hemp, bamboo, and linen.
Related Article: Our detailed guide on microfiber vs cotton sheets.
If you’re really looking to make a difference, you could take things a step ahead and opt for products made from eco-friendly organic cotton. There’s zero risk of microplastic shedding if you only buy items made from natural fabrics.
4. Avoid Personal Care Products With Microbeads
Your favorite toothpaste, face scrub, lotions, and hand sanitizer may be home to a huge amount of microplastics in the form of microbeads. A staggering 808 trillion microbeads are washed down the drain every day in the US alone. While much of it is filtered at the wastewater treatment plant, about 8 trillion microbeads still end up in the waterways, and the remaining 800 trillion become a part of the sludge (that’s no less of a problem).
Many countries have banned the use of microbeads in wash-off cosmetics or classified them as unsafe. However, on an individual level, you can opt for sustainable and clean beauty brands that formulate their products without microbeads. With the same dazzling results and a guilt-free conscience, chances are, you won’t miss your old products!
5. Use Paint Responsibly
There are a few ways through which you can help scale back on the microplastics emitted from paints. For starters, while whitewashing, you might want to hold back on washing the brushes in the sink to stop the microplastic-containing paint from getting washed down the drain.
It’s also a good idea to keep all your painted stuff well-maintained to avoid rust and reduce the need for repainting, especially since most rust and paint particles end up in the waterways.
6. Ditch Single-Use Plastics
Single-use plastics were never good news, and you’ve just got another reason to ditch them for good. Almost all types of plastic become brittle and break down due to the natural weathering process. Some of the worst offenders are tea bags, polystyrene-based styrofoam containers, coffee cups, plastic straws, tea bags, and disposable shopping bags.
So, every time you ditch plastics in favor of eco-friendly tea infusers, bamboo cutlery, cotton flour sack towels or reusable cotton canvas bags, you’re making the right choice - one that’s not just good for the planet but also your health.
7. Say Yes to Carpool And Public Transport
We mentioned how debris from car tires adds to microplastic pollution. Every time your car accelerates or comes to a halt, it causes the tires to break down and release micro pieces of plastic that start building up in the air.
In cities, this situation is exacerbated by the higher number of vehicles on the road, forming clouds of tire wear particles and other contaminants into something known as ‘city dust.’ By carpooling and sharing rides to school or work or using public transport instead of personal cars, you can help cut down on microplastic pollution as well as carbon emissions.
Did you know a single tea bag releases up to 11.6 billion microplastic and 3.1 billion nanoplastic into hot water? To think we drink a contaminated concoction without even realizing what’s in it!
Microplastics may be only 5mm small, but they sure are turning into a big environmental problem. There are 51 trillion tonnes of these toxic particles in the oceans right now, and many of them are there due to the choices we make. By making small changes to our daily routine, we can tackle the microplastic problem and protect ourselves and the environment from its toxic effects.