When we talk about pollution, we often discuss factories churning out toxic smoke, the millions of tonnes of waste sent to landfill every year, or our wild overconsumption of resources. These are clear and in-your-face issues. But now scientists are finding an increasingly greater prevalence of another type of pollution. One that is physically much smaller, but one whose impact may well be much, much bigger.
These pollutants are called microplastics.
But what exactly are microplastics, where do they come from and what can we do about them?
Microplastics are tiny plastic particles less than five millimetres in length (roughly the size of a sesame seed). Their true impact is yet to be fully understood, but one thing is for certain, they are finding their way into our water sources, our marine life, the food we eat and most worryingly, our bodies!
A study on ocean pollution by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that up to 30% of plastic in the world’s oceans could be in the form of microplastics.
In fact, every year, we release up to 2.85 million tonnes of microplastics into our waterways.
The report found that in areas with efficient waste management systems, microplastics contribute more to marine pollution than larger plastic waste. This indicates that plastic ocean pollution is a problem arising from our daily activities.
Microplastics may seem small, but this is a big deal.
Consumption of microplastics by marine life can be extremely harmful or even fatal. And besides the danger to marine life, microplastics carrying bacteria and toxins travel up the food chain. This can potentially infect the food we eat.
One of the largest contributors to microplastic pollution is the breakdown of larger plastic items, such as water bottles, plastic bags and food packaging.
Whilst we continue to increase the rate at which we recycle, it’s estimated that as little as one-third of the items we put in the recycling bin actually end up being recycled. The UK exports a staggering amount of waste each year. So it’s no surprise that some of these items end up in our waterways. Scientists are now even discovering that microplastics are becoming airborne. So a policy of recycling alone is no longer a viable solution to the problem.
Health and beauty products also form a large part of the issue. Many of the products we use to make ourselves look good are actually having the opposite effect on our planet. Whilst the use of microbeads in cosmetics was thankfully banned in 2018, many products still contain microplastics and more often than not they come in plastic packaging. These hidden pollutants are escaping down our plugholes and finding their way into our fragile waterways.
Clothing also has huge implications for microplastics. A report by IMechE estimates that up to 35% of all ocean microplastics come from synthetic clothing, which now makes up over 60% of all clothing worldwide. A single load of laundry could release hundreds of thousands of microplastics into our waterways. The University of California Santa Barbara estimates that a population of 100,000 people release the equivalent of 15,000 plastic bags into local waterways each day just from washing their clothes. One synthetic fleece jacket releases an average of 1.7 grams of microfibers per wash!
A recent study found that one tea bag releases about 11.6 billion microplastic particles and 3.1 billion nanoplastics into each mug. From table salt to fruit and vegetables, traces of plastic have been found in food we eat daily. Another study from Environmental Research found that apples had the highest microplastic count of 195,500 particles per gram. It’s estimated that we consume around five grams of plastic every week, the equivalent of an entire credit card.
Have you ever considered how many of the products you use in your daily life contribute to microplastic pollution? It may seem like an impossibly daunting task to have any effect on the situation as an individual. However, there are many small and simple changes we can make to everyday habits that can have a big collective impact.
Reducing our consumption of large single-use plastics is surprisingly easy. Carry a water bottle and a keep cup instead of buying single-use and you could save the equivalent of 167 bottles and 500 plastic cups per year. Opt for an organic cotton tote bag instead of a plastic one at the supermarket, and you could save 170 plastic bags. Instead of cling film opt for beeswax wraps.
When it comes to the clothes you wear, opt for organic materials as much as possible. You’ll avoid the release of microplastics. Plus in the long term, they will biodegrade. Their plastic cousins, on the other hand, may yet see the next millennium. It is very difficult to avoid polyester in every piece of clothing fully, and you may well already own several items. Thankfully there is a solution. You can find fish-friendly washing bags that will capture the microplastics released by your clothing in the washing machine and allow you to recycle them further down the line safely.
Many big beauty brands may be unable or unwilling to remove plastic from their core line of products. However, there are some amazing brands out there providing zero plastic options. Much of the time you’ll even find their products are actually better for your health too!
For more information on how to reduce plastic use in your day-to-day life, take a look at our easy tips to reducing plastic use.