What Are Microplastics? All You Need to Know

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The first time I heard about microplastics was a couple of years ago when a friend was talking about those face cleansers with microbeads. For some reason, I had never questioned them. Why would those teeny tiny balls be dangerous for me and for the environment?

And I don’t quite know what I used to think they were made of, but when I realized they were plastic I was mind-blown.

Little did I know that worlds like microplastic and microfiber would be everywhere not too long after that.

Now we know that there’s hidden plastic in many of the products we use on a daily basis. We even know that there are microplastics in our oceans, in the salt we use to cook, in the food we eat, in rainwater, and even in Arctic snow.

Check this out: we’ve been using plastic since the 1950s. Not that long ago, right? But since then we have generated approximately 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic.

Numbers are not my thing but…

All that plastic has to go somewhere once we throw it away, but the problem is that plastic doesn’t biodegrade, and it doesn’t really ever disappear. A bottle is not going to melt into the soil like a banana peel.

Think about it. Almost all the plastic you have ever used in your life still exists. Every shampoo bottle, every polyester t-shirt, every toothbrush,… *yikes*

So what happened? Where is all the plastic we have produced since 1950? As of 2015, of all the plastic ever produced and discarded:

  • ONLY 9% has been recycled
  • 12% has been incinerated
  • 79% has been thrown away and is still sitting in landfills. One of the problems with this is that sunlight exposure, microbes and other forces of nature have broken down these plastics into smaller and smaller pieces = microplastics.


But what are microplastics?

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic, less than 5 millimeters long. And plastic comes from fossil fuels, which are actually the source of the issue here.

There are two types:

  • Microplastics that were made that way. Those microbeads we were talking about, for example. Now they are banned in some countries, but before that they were very common in exfoliating creams and toothpaste (but WHY??). Oh! And glitter is also included in this type of microplastic.
  • Bigger plastics that turn into microplastics. These are the ones I bet you have seen at the beach: tiny colorful pieces of something that isn’t sand. When larger pieces of plastic start breaking down, these little bastards appear. And they can break down from anything made of plastic, from PET bottles to tires and tire dust.
ocean plastic waste is one of the leading sources of microplastics

And actually, about 34.8% of all microplastics are the result of synthetic clothes breaking down. In this case, we’re talking about microfibers.

Read more: Fast Fashion Facts You Need to Know

Approx. 60% of the clothes used nowadays are synthetic and even washing your synthetic garments creates microplastics. Just one load of 6 kg of synthetic laundry releases between 100,000 and 700,000 particles of tiny fibres.

But I have a little trick for you: you can avoid creating microplastics if you use laundry bags, like these ones from Guppyfriend.

Read more: Are Clothes Made from Recycled Plastic Eco-Friendly?

And where do they live?

Long story short: everywhere.

They have been found in our food, our water, and in the air – and this means that we eat, drink and breathe them daily. Ew.

Of course, microplastic concentration in food, water, and air changes depending on where you live, but they affect us all to some extent.

Considering these variations, we consume between 74,000 and 121,000 particles of microplastics a year – mostly coming from the air, bottled water (studies show that generally there are more microplastics in bottled water than tap water btw), BEER, and seafood.

Even fish living 1,000 ft (around 300 m) deep in the ocean are ingesting these microplastics. One team of researchers found PET plastic, bottle caps, plastic bags, and synthetic clothing fibers in the guts of deep sea fish.

But this won’t really come as much of a shock if you think about the fact that there are around 5.25 trillion pieces of macro and microplastic floating in the open ocean.

Read more: Ocean Plastic Pollution: 11 Facts You Need To Know

non-biodegradable glitter is considered a microplastic

How do microplastics affect our health?

We’ve started studying microplastics relatively recently, so we don’t quite know exactly how they will impact our health, but there are theories.

First of all, plastic is toxic, and once in our gut it may release toxic substances and cause endocrine disruptions, infertility, and even cancer.

Something that we know for sure is that harmful bacteria and chemical toxins can live in microplastics. One research conducted in Singapore found more than 400 different types of bacteria on 275 particles of microplastic.

So what can we do about microplastics?

You may have heard about these plastic-eating bacteria and enzymes that super smart scientists are working on.

So we have to leave to them the task of getting rid of the existing microplastics.

But in the meantime, there’s actually a lot you can do to avoid creating new plastic, from reducing your use of plastic to demanding 🎶systemic change🎶:

  • Push your local policymakers to ban single-use plastic in your area – you can read more about how to advocate for change and how to create petitions here
  • Evaluate your plastic footprint: can you avoid plastic in any part of your life?
  • If possible, buy less synthetic clothes, and if you already own them, give laundry bags or washing machine filters a try to reduce the amount of microplastics your laundry creates
  • When you do the groceries, avoid plastic like it’s the plague and go for glass/paper-packaged products. Here you can read about my tricks for low waste groceries
  • Break up with single-use plastics.
  • Be aware that single-use plastic and low quality plastic items are actually making you lose money in the long term. Here you have my post on how to reduce your waste on a budget
  • Learn about the everyday products we use that contain plastic and you may not know about. I call these sneaky plastics and you can learn about them (and how to avoid them) in this post

What do you think?

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