Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long made up synthetic polymers including polyethylene, polylactic acid (PLA), polypropylene, polystyrene, or polyethylene terephthalate. Microplastics can be found in countless every day products (many unbeknown to the consumer) including in skincare formulations, clothing materials, face scrubs, and toothpaste.
Our reliance on plastic as a part of commonly used household and lifestyle products continues to have an impact on the environment. While many of us are becoming more aware of this and of the incredible amount of plastic dumped in landfills, microplastics in our waterways has only relatively recently emerged as a real issue of concern as well.
Many pieces of microplastics are derived from larger plastic objects, broken down over time. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade and will exist forever in some shape or form. Through the effects of the sun, wind and water, the large pieces are eventually broken down into these tiny sizes.
Other microplastics are intentionally designed to be small. The manufactured polyethylene plastic microbeads found in shower gels, skin exfoliant products and and toothpaste are common examples.
What harm are microplastics causing to the environment?
Marine environments and the wildlife that live in these delicate ecosystems are the main victims of the effects of microplastics. These small pieces of plastic can absorb concentrations of the household and industrial toxins that are leaked out into waterways too. With the amount microplastic floating in the ocean often outnumbering plankton, studies have shown aquatic wildlife mistake these toxic pieces of plastic for food and consume them.
This plastic contamination affects our bodies too. When fish and seafood contaminated by these microplastics end up on our plates, they end up inside us. Even some brands of sea salt we happily sprinkle on our food has been found to contain microplastics.
A study has shown even the largest fish in the world aren’t immune to effects of the deadly toxic pieces of microplastics. Whales and whale sharks are filter feeders, they eat by straining food particles from water, in turn, ingesting huge quantities of microplastics.
So, what can we do to help?
It’s up to us to make smarter choices when it comes to plastic; paying attention to the ingredients, formulation and packaging of products.
Health & Beauty
Pay attention to the ingredients of personal care products. As mentioned above, microbeads are commonly found in health and beauty products like toothpaste, face scrubs and body washes. Those found in toothpastes can even end up embedded in your gums, which is a pretty scary thought!
Microbeads are usually made from the following ingredients, so keep an eye out for them on product labels:
- Polyethylene (PE)
- Polypropylene (PP)
- Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
- Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)
- Nylon (PA)
Fortunately campaigns like #beatthemicrobead along with policy change across the world have seen some countries ban the use of microbeads in personal care products. Microplastics can also be found in some cosmetics, deodorant and sunscreen, so carefully check labels for the things you buy.
Opt for natural fibre clothing. All clothing items release microfibers when we put them through the wash. The water from our washing machine sweeps these tiny synthetic fibers through plumbing and sewerage systems into waterways. While clothing made from natural materials - like wool and cotton - have biodegradable fibres, synthetic clothing sheds particles that are slow to break down and highly absorbent of toxins. Due to the swell in fast, disposable fashion, our wardrobes are increasingly lined with clothing made from plastic, synthetic materials.
Research by the The University College Dublin found synthetic fibres account for a whopping 85% of human-made material that washes up on our shore lines. Acrylic clothing is responsible for shedding the most microfibres in a single wash and common synthetic fibres include polyester, polyamide, viscose, elastane and nylon. This doesn’t mean to have to rush out and replace your entire wardrobe...or go nude! The goal is to become more aware of these types of materials so you can make more informed purchasing decisions in the future.
Minimise or avoid single use plastic items
One of the most obvious ways to reduce the impact of microplastics on our beautiful marine environments is to cut back or stop using single-use plastic items. These are the larger plastic items that eventually break down into microplastic.
A few ideas to get you started:
- Swap plastic bags for a reusable canvas tote or backpack on your next grocery shopping trip.
- Bring your own reusable containers for take away meals.
- Swap disposable coffee cups for a stylish reusable option.
- Buy fresh bread that comes in paper wrapping or take your own bread bag.
- Opt for reusable utensils and stainless steel drinking straws instead of disposable ones.
- Use cleaning brushes and sponges made from natural fibres and materials instead of plastic options.
- Take a stainless steel drink bottle with you instead of buying bottles of water.
- Use bar soap instead of soap dispensed in plastic pump containers.
Don’t feel overwhelmed, you don’t need to make big changes all at once. Just choose one or two swaps to start with and go from there! Even the smallest change can make a difference to reducing the impact of microplastics on our planet.