I heard about microplastics for the first time a couple of years ago. Someone was talking about those skin cleansers for acne with microbeads. Do you know them? Yikes.
Little did I know back then that the word “microplastics” would be everywhere just a year or so later.
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.
Math and numbers are not my forte but…
Obviously, all that plastic has to go somewhere once we throw it away. Plastics don’t biodegrade, they are not going to ‘melt’ into the soil like a banana peel.
So where are they? Where are the plastics we have produced since then? As of 2015, of all the plastic ever produced and discarded:
- 9% (ONLY) has been recycled
- 12% has been incinerated. Which doesn’t mean we got rid of it without consequences, given that the burning of plastic produces toxic fumes.
- 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?
As the word implies, microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic less than 5 millimeters long.
There are two types:
- Microplastics that were born that way. Those microbeads we were talking about, for example. Now they are banned in some countries, but before that, they were extensively used in products such as exfoliating creams and toothpaste (just WHY??). And they traveled down your drain and into our waters. Glitter is also a 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. They are created by the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic. And they can come from literally any plastic-based product ever created. From some tea bags to fishing gear, to any plastic litter (disposable PET bottles,…). Fun fact: EVEN tire dust!
Oh, many of these microplastics are actually fibers, which makes researchers think that they come from the production, use, and disposal of synthetic clothing.
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.
And where do microplastics live?
Hmmm… I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer.
But microplastics are literally everywhere.
They have been found in our food, our water, and our air. They live inside of us. Ew.
Of course, microplastic concentration in food, water, and air changes depending on the geographical area you live in, but this affects all of us 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 (there are more microplastics in bottled water than tap water), and seafood.
Because even fish living as deep as 1,000 ft (around 300 m) deep in the ocean are ingesting these microplastics. The researchers who found this say that there were mostly PET plastics in the guts of different kinds of fish, from bottle caps to plastic bags and, again, synthetic clothing fibers.
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.
And have you heard about the plastic particles found inside the Arctic snow?
What does it mean for 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 obviously toxic, and once in our gut it will release toxic substances and cause disorders such as cancer, endocrine disruptions, and infertility.
We don’t quite know what effects microplastics have when they enter our bloodstream, and even what happens (or will happen) when they reach our brains in large amounts.
What is 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. AND we are eating these things!
This is how we can make microplastics disappear
You know there’s a solution for everything.
We will leave to science the whole thing about how to get rid of the existing microplastics – and in the long run, they will have to deal as well with our quasi bionic half-human-half-plastic bodies. But don’t feel hopeless, like always there is something you can do!
And in this case, it is pretty simple: reduce your waste, and reduce your use of single-use plastics.
And if you need some ideas to get started, visit my post on how to reduce your waste on a budget.