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Microplastics: What They Are and How They Harm the Planet

Microplastics are in our food, the air, and even our drinking water. Here's what they are, how they're harming the environment, and how to avoid them.

what are microplastics
Written by
Esther Abisola Omole
Published
When asked to name something
plastic
, most of us picture the same few items: water bottles,
grocery bags
, and single-use utensils. The reality is plastic is everywhere, from electronics and furniture to
shampoo
and toothpaste—and even in our bloodstreams.
This terrifying reality comes courtesy of microplastics, the more-than-ubiquitous degradation of plastic tiny enough to pollute, well, everything. 

What Are Microplastics?

what are microplastics
Although plastic waste can be found in many sizes, the term "microplastics" is reserved for debris that is less than five millimeters, or about the size of a sesame seed. Most microplastics are sorted into two categories based on how they form. 
Primary microplastics are
designed for commercial use
, like “microbeads” in cosmetics, lotions, and toothpaste or microfibers found in textiles or netting. Although the
Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015
prohibits
manufacturing microbeads in cosmetic products
in the U.S., primary microplastics are still accumulating in our environment. 
According to
Dr. Imogen Napper
, marine scientist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Plymouth in the UK, these microplastics are by no means limited to those that can be seen with the naked eye. While conducting the research that ultimately helped initiate the aforementioned ban, Napper found that the majority of the microplastics within facial scrubs were the size of a fine powder.
“We found that up to three million could be in one facial scrub bottle,” says Napper. “So there could be hundreds of thousands that you're washing your face (they're meant to be exfoliating) go down the drain, and then through the sewer works, and potentially into our ocean.”
Secondary microplastics are particles that are
broken down from larger plastic products
(such as water bottles and containers), usually through environmental means like erosion. Most of these products will not decompose completely.

Why Are Microplastics a Problem?

what are microplastics
Because plastic is found everywhere, its impact is multifaceted. Humans have produced more than
eight billion tons of plastic
, recycling less than 10% since the 1950s.
Instead of dissolving or reducing, plastic
just gets smaller over time
and ends up in rivers, lakes, and oceans. This is likely why an estimated
14 million tons
of microplastics live on the ocean floor. Plastic is an enduring material, meaning microplastics will
continue to accumulate
for generations before breaking down. 
"If we were to stop all plastic entering the ocean today, the amount of microplastic would continue to rise, because they're going to keep degrading and fragmenting," says Napper. "So the smallest animals In the ocean can eat these tiny bits of plastic, mistaking it as food. Now, when these smaller items are eaten by a bigger fish, and that fish is then eaten by even a bigger fish, and so on and so on, these microplastics can amplify up the food chain."

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How Microplastics Harm People and the Planet

Microplastics are a sustainability issue for many reasons, the first being the lengthy life cycle of plastic that gets ingested by human populations.
In the U.S., we ingest about
74,000 particles a year
. The
World Health Organization
notes particles can be found "in marine water, wastewater, fresh water, food, air, and drinking water (both bottled and tap water)." Textiles produce 35% of this marine microplastic pollution, meaning microfibers from textiles run off into the water.
Microplastics are also present in the atmosphere, and many are broken down into
dust and indigestible particulates
. Chemicals found in some of these plastics have been
linked to health problems
, such as reproductive harm or obesity.
Because the majority of plastics—including primary microplastics—aren’t recycled, they usually end up in landfills, incinerators, or the environment. These facilities are
disproportionately located
in BIPOC and low-income areas. According to a report from The New School,
79% of incinerators
are located in primarily BIPOC communities. Emissions from these plastics release pollutants into the atmosphere and are linked to higher rates of
asthma, respiratory disease, and cardiovascular disease
.
Microplastic waste also has a negative impact on the environment. Aquatic life and birds can mistake microplastics for food. Coastal communities that depend on seafood also face
significant health risks
.
In the Maldives, known for their
extensive marine biodiversity,
tourists produce twice as much trash per day as residents. As a result, its beaches and waters have one of the world’s highest levels of microplastics. Researchers also collected 71 triggerfish and found they all had microplastics in their bellies—plastic that is ultimately ingested by residents who eat these fish.

Tips to Reduce Your Microplastic Contribution

what are microplastics

1. Consider Non-Synthetic Clothes

Microfibers, a type of primary microplastic, are found in many textiles, including the clothes we wear. According to Napper, up to 60% of available clothing—think synthetics like nylon and polyester—is comprised of plastic, with an average of 700,000 microfibers shed in each typical washing cycle. 
You can partially avoid these microplastics by switching to natural fibers like cotton, linen, and wool, or find brands that create textiles sourced from recycled fibers. It’s important to note that
even clothes that claim to be 100% natural
can contain up to 30% chemical additives to maintain durability and resistance. Still, making the effort to switch will decrease your microplastic contribution.

2. Change Your Laundry Routine

Microfibers are frequently found in laundry wastewater. Washing fuller loads, using cooler water,
doing laundry less frequently
, and air-drying clothes can reduce microfiber emissions in your routine. You can also toss a
Microfiber Catching Laundry Ball
into the washing machine, which helps mitigate microfiber shedding during the process.

3. Cut Out Unnecessary Single-Use Plastics

Because we know secondary microplastics are created from larger plastics, it’s important to reduce our use of these products. This could include bringing a
reusable tote bag
to the grocery store to avoid plastic bags, using reusable straws and takeaway utensils, opting for
Stasher bags
over Ziplocs, and getting a trusty
reusable water bottle
.

4. Solidify Your Recycling Practices

We know that the U.S. only recycles 10% of the plastic it consumes. Scientists are working on
creating packaging that's easier to recycle
, but in the meantime, you can do your part. Check that the products you use
contain recyclable polymers
or comply with your local recycling protocol.

The Takeaway

Microplastics have a huge impact on the health and well-being of communities, as well as ecological and environmental preservation.
Ultimately, the significant reduction of these particles from our land and atmosphere can’t be achieved solely on an individual level. However, learning more about microplastics can help us lessen our contribution and be active in protecting the people and environments most affected by them