What Are Microplastics?

non-biodegradable glitter is considered a microplastic
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I heard about microplastics for the first time a couple of years ago when someone was talking about those face cleansers with microbeads. I don’t know what I thought those teeny-tiny balls were, but when I learnt that they were plastic my mind was blown.

And little did I know that the word microplastic 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 acknowledge that plastic pollution is a real issue, and we read news about microplastics being found in our oceans, in the salt we cook with, 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 forte 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 dissapear. A bottle is not not going to melt into the soil like a banana peel.

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. Sunlight exposure, microbes, and other forces of nature have made these plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces = microplastics.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters long.

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 exfolitating creams and toothpaste (just WHY??). Oh! And glitter is 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 originate from any plastic object, from PET botters to tire dust.
ocean plastic waste is one of the leading sources of microplastics

And actually a huge percentage of the microplastics floating around are the result of the breakdown of synthetic fabrics and in these cases we talk about microfibers. You can read more about microfiber pollution on this post about fast fashion.

Approx. 60% of the clothes used nowadays are synthetic. So imagine the number of microfibers floating around.

Now, did you know that washing your synthetic garments pollutes A LOT? Just one load of 6 kg of synthetic laundry releases between 100,000 and 700,000 particles of tiny fibers. (But I have a little trick for you: you can avoid releasing microplastics if you use laundry bags, like these ones from Guppyfriend)

And where do they live?

Long story short: everywhere.

They have been found in our food, our water and our 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 in the world, but they affect us all to some extent.

Considering these variations, humans 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 fish.

And it couldn’t be otherwise, as there may be around 5.25 trillion pieces of macro and microplastic floating in the open ocean, which would weigh up to 269,000 tons.

How do microplastics affect human health?

This phenomenon is way too new to know all the impacts it will have on our lives, 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.

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 science the task of getting rid of the existing microplastics.

But in the meantime there’s actually a lot you can do and it all starts by reducing your waste. Here you have a few tips:

  • Evaluate your plastic footprint: in which areas of your life are you using plastic? Is it possible to avoid it?
  • 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 at all costs and go for glass/paper-packaged products. Here you can read about my tricks to do low waste and plastic-free groceries at the supermarket.
  • Break up with single-use plastics.
  • Realise that there’s a lot you can do without spending too much money or giving too much effort. 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 yo may not know about! I call these hidden plastics and you can learn about them in this post.

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