What are microplastics?
Microplastics are tiny plastic pieces between five millimeters and a few hundred nanometers long (70 times smaller than the thickness of a hair). They are now in every corner of our planet, from Florida beach sand to the Arctic sea ice, from the soil to the air. A study shows that 80% of sand samples from beaches all around the world contain microplastics.
All living beings can swallow plastic, often mistaking it for food, or —simply— by ignoring it’s presence in their food source.
Where do microplastics come from ?
Plastic objects/debris: Microplastics don’t start this small. They begin as plastic objects or debris that break down into smaller pieces. Plastic decomposition can be caused by several factors, such as: currents, sunlight and friction with rocks or sand. 80% of plastic in the ocean comes from the land. It makes its way to the beaches and oceans with the rain, wind or currents. They can also come from legal and illegal trash dumping into waterways and seas.
Synthetic clothes: Sadly, the increase in fast fashion and cheaply made clothing is causing a huge issue with microplastics. Plastic found in clothing breaks down into microfibers during machine washing. Only one load of a laundry can produce more than 700,000 microplastic fibers that find their way to the oceans through runoff.
Plastic microbeads: Microbeads are tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic that are added as exfoliants to health and beauty products such as cleansers, toothpastes, facial scrubs and more. They then pass through water filtration systems and into the sea. Recently, some countries prohibited their use: In the USA, President Barack Obama signed the Microbead-free Waters Act in 2021.
Lost containers: Cargo ships can lose containers during shipments. Every year between 1,000 and 100,000 containers are lost in the sea and can break while containing plastic items, causing their contents to get lost in the ocean.
Tire friction: While driving, our car tires make friction, spreading microplastics in the air and the ground. These particles get blown by the wind and then washed by the rain, ending up in the ocean. A scientific report has estimated that 30% of microplastics’ volume in oceans, lakes and rivers come from tire wear.
What are the impacts?
Plastic is not the only pollutant. Additional additives are added to plastics’ content during production. These could be pigments, ultraviolet stabilizers, water repellents, flame retardants, stiffeners such as bisphenol A and softeners called phthalates.
Microplastics can block digestive tracts, alter feeding behavior, diminish the urge to eat and have a negative impact on the growth and health of nearly all living creatures. Zooplanktons are food sources for a lot of animals like fish and whales; yet, when these larger species accidently ingest microplastics, they tend to lose their appetite which results in less energy for their growth and reproduction. This significantly affects the food chain and the wellbeing of biodiversity around the world.
Some chemicals added to plastic are considered endocrine disruptors. Flame retardants can interfere in fetal development and children’s growth. They have also been proven to cause cancer. The smallest pieces of microplastic can actually penetrate cells and move into tissues or organs where they’re not rejected from the body. Research is still in progress. Every week, one human could ingest the equivalent of a plastic credit card.
How can we act?
As a citizen, we can use boycotts as a tool for standing up to the plastic industry. You can also choose to support marine conservation efforts from an NGO that fights against plastic pollution and puts pressure on governmental institutions to make meaningful changes on the laws. Banning specific plastics —such as those used for food production and packaging— is a good place to start when pressuring companies and governments to make active and impactful changes
Also, the fashion industry has to steer away from ‘fast fashion’ and actively produce more clothing with organic materials such as cotton, hemp or linen. Consumers have the option to buy from sustainable providers and disregard brands whose environmental protocols are weak or inexistent.
For cosmetic products you can use the app beatthemicrobead to see if your everyday products contain any plastic components.
One of the best ways to fight the microplastic problem is by becoming a knowledgeable consumer. Spending money on products that do not contribute to the plastic problem makes a huge difference!