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A Beginner’s Guide to Microplastics: What Are They and Why Are They a Problem?

Updated: Apr 2


What are microplastics and why are they a problem_Plastic Detox

Did you know that an annual sum of approximately 8 million tons of plastic winds up in our oceans? The health of wildlife, ecosystems, and even humans are all affected by this obscene amount of plastic pollution spreading across the globe [2]. However, not everyone knows or talks about the not-so-widely-known byproduct of plastic: microplastics. If you follow the news, you may have seen titles such as Study Discovers Microplastics in Human Veins, How Much Microplastic Am I Eating, or Microplastics Found in Human Breast Milk. These headlines are alarming, so in order to figure out what is going on, we decided to do our own research on the topic. This is what we found…


What are Microplastics?


What are microplastics graphic 1000

Microplastics are no different than plastic, they get their name due to their size. Microplastics are about 5 mm in diameter (about the size of a pencil eraser) or smaller. No matter the size of plastic, it can never fully biodegrade. This means that once plastic is created, it will continue to exist in our ecosystems for centuries. Microplastics are troublesome because their small size makes them challenging to filter out and impossible to recycle, which unfortunately leads to them ending up in our environment.


Microplastics come from primary and secondary sources, which means that they can either be intentionally created for the use of consumer products or they are a byproduct of larger plastic items. Primary microplastics are intentionally created microplastics integrated into commercial products for customer use, such as microbeads. Secondary microplastics are formed from larger plastic items broken down by natural environmental forces, such as ocean waves or the heat of the sun.

Primary plastics like microbeads are a type of microplastic typically found in products revolving around health and beauty for their exfoliating qualities. These include toothpaste, body scrubs, glittery makeup, or even microfibers in the materials of the clothes we wear. According to a representative of Moms Clean Air Force, “microbeads are usually made from non-biodegradable plastic [and] most commonly show up on labels as synthetic compounds like polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and nylon…”—over 300,000 microbeads can be found in just one product (e.g., a container of body scrub) [3].

Primary microplastics can wash down our drains and washing machines, and come off of our clothes or care products through everyday activities, exposing them to waterways and nature, which is especially concerning given that “[most] water municipalities aren’t equipped to detect or remove these microbeads, so they end up passing through the treatment process and getting into our waterways” [2]. In fact, “35% of the [primary] microplastics in the ocean are caused by the abrasion of our clothing and textiles… The synthetic microfibers that shed during washing cannot be filtered in wastewater treatment plants, so they end up in fields with the sewage sludge, making their way into nature” [5].

Secondary microplastics (broken-down pieces from larger plastic items) enter the environment from either the deliberate use and discarding of a product or exposure to natural elements when littered. Plastic can break down at any point in its lifecycle and enter our lakes, rivers, and oceans, be consumed by wildlife, and make their way into the food web.

Why are Microplastics a Problem?

In the oceans alone, there is an annual sum (globally) of 1.5 million tons of microplastics, which is “the equivalent of every human throwing away a plastic [bag’s] worth of microplastics every week” [1]. This is especially detrimental considering that microplastics are much more difficult to remove from the environment than larger plastics. Much like the plastic we’re used to hearing about, microplastics are unable to easily break down into molecules that are safe for the environment—usually taking more than hundreds of years to decompose while they harm nature and organisms.

What are microplastics? Plastic Detox

Microplastics can be seen on beaches as mini plastic bits in multitudes of different colors in the sand where birds can easily mistake them for food. In the water, aquatic organisms often eat microplastics, poisoning the food web when those creatures are then consumed by other animals (birds, fish, crustaceans, etc.) and then “... eventually getting ingested by large marine animals and humans, particularly in rural, Indigenous, and low-income communities that rely on wild foods” [2]. Meanwhile, heavier microplastics sink and pollute the ocean floor [4].


Plastic from littering, runoff, and poor waste management can send microplastics into our waterways; “[many] plastics float, so countless plastic items of all shapes and sizes make their journey downstream, eventually making their way to the oceans” [6]. What is not often considered is that the world’s water is all connected through the water cycle, which is a huge issue when our lakes, rivers, and oceans are all being polluted by our plastic. Due to this, “[microplastics] can enter the human body through ingestion and inhalation where they may be absorbed into various organs and might affect health, for example, by damaging cells or inducing inflammatory and immune reactions” [7]. While we do not yet know the full scope of what all of this exposure can cause in us and future generations, what is known is that having plastic in our bodies is not great for our health. It is abundantly clear that we need to do something to strive for the elimination of microplastics in our everyday lives.


How to Avoid and Reduce Microplastics

While there are many tough challenges ahead for managing microplastic pollution, there are many actions you can take and products you can look into to help prevent some of the harmful effects of microplastics’ presence in the global ecosystem. It is important to know that you can make a difference, even by eliminating one or two plastic products. With a few mild lifestyle adjustments and a commitment to microplastic-conscious shopping, you can start making choices that slowly improve the state of microplastic pollution—and many of these choices also work beyond just the prevention of microplastic exposure and spread, working towards being waste-free and environmentally conscious in all aspects of life.

Some alternatives to primary and secondary microplastic pollution are consumer-driven, such as purchasing products that are transparent about their global impact and ingredients, as well as choosing reusable options over single-use plastic items. Here are some suggestions:


10 Suggestions for Avoiding Microplastics:

1. Avoid purchasing plastic as often as you can (this looks different for everyone).

2. Avoid foods packaged in plastic wrap or inside plastic containers.

3. Recycle your plastics, typically plastic with the numbers 1, 2, and 5 on the bottom are recyclable in your curbside bins. To learn more about recycling, check out our blog Recycling-What No One Told You.

4. Choose reusable bags when shopping, don't forget to bring produce bags too.

5. Invest in a HEPA filter for your home to filter out airborne pollutants in your everyday environment.

6. Buy cosmetics without microbeads or plastics. Instead, look for natural and easily biodegradable ingredients (i.e., a sugar scrub rather than microbeads or coffee grounds).

7. Not-So-Fun Fact: Microplastics are still being used in toothpaste. Check out these toothpaste bits that are microplastic-free (added bonus: the packaging is also plastic-free).

8. Look for plastic alternative items whenever they are available. Here are a few of our favorites: Organic Cotton Dryer Balls, Bee’s Wrap Snack Bags, Biodegradable Kitchen Sponges (regular sponges shed microplastics!), and so much more.




9. Check out this laundry filter by PlanetCare that catch 90% of microfibers from clothing, preventing them from entering our waterways [5]. Their cartridges can be recycled and reused by PlanetCare. [Use promo code "LRICE" for 10% off]

10. There are many more immersive and active ways to get involved, such as volunteering at non-profits, signing petitions, getting involved with local organizations, community clean-ups, starting a group on social media, and calling or writing to politicians.


Change Needs to Happen

Overall, this is a large, complex topic with still so much research to be done, as well as many ways we can work together to cut back on the microplastics we are exposed to and unconsciously emit. Change needs to happen, and awareness and education are the first steps. Action can look different depending on the person, but it is always important to be conscious. While microplastics are serious and a little scary, reducing our plastic footprint and using more environmentally safe products will help to reduce plastic pollution for years to come.


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References

[1] Boucher, J., & Friot, D. (2017). Primary microplastics in the oceans: a global evaluation of sources (Vol. 10). Gland, Switzerland: Iucn. P. 19 https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/2017-002-En.pdf

[2] International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). (July 2021). How does plastic get into the ocean? IFAW. Retrieved February 14, 2023, from https://www.ifaw.org/journal/plastic-pollution-ocean?ms=UONDC230037102&gclid=CjwKCAiA_6yfBhBNEiwAkmXy54dRJw8eGSzYeb_1WVmhXvRVfgRHrlm35CyAMK0STppNCeY_uFVD9xoCeqIQAvD_BwE

[3] MacEachern, D. (April 2019). Microbeads Pollute Water and Wildlife. Moms Clean Air Force. Retrieved January 30, 2023, from https://www.momscleanairforce.org/say-no-to-plastic-microbeads/

[4] National Geographic Society. (n.d.). Microplastics. Retrieved January 30, 2023, from https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/microplastics

[5] PlanetCare. (n.d.). The most effective solution to stop microfiber pollution. Retrieved January 30, 2023, from https://planetcare.org/

[6] Sulpizio, J. (2022, August 26). Microplastics in our waters, an unquestionable concern. Penn State Extension. Retrieved February 12, 2023, from https://extension.psu.edu/microplastics-in-our-waters-an-unquestionable-concern

[7] Vethaak, A. D., & Legler, J. (February 2021). Microplastics and human health. Science. Retrieved January 30, 2023, from https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abe5041




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