Written by Miriam Staiger, All For Blue, 23.05.2021
Microplastics are small plastic particles (smaller than 5mm) that are either produced in this small size for commercial use, such as in cosmetics, or are a result of larger plastic products breaking down into smaller pieces. Microplastics are widely spread in our environment, from our oceans and rivers to the sediments and mountains and yes, even in our tap and bottled water. These tiny plastic pieces have been found in the most remote places on earth such as the North Pole4 as well as the deepest part of our ocean, the Mariana Trench3. So, why is this a problem and what can you do to help?
Photo Credit: The Green Optimistic
Different kinds of microplastics
First of all, we need to understand that microplastics are divided into two categories: primary and secondary microplastics.
Primary microplastics are all the microplastics that are commercially produced in this very small size for a specific purpose, such as in air blasting cleaning techniques, biomedical research or as microbeads in cosmetics. Products like toothpaste, anti aging creams, moisturizers, sunscreen, makeup and even children’s bubble bath can all contain microplastics. Face scrubs can contain so called microbeads, which are nothing else than tiny microplastic spheres that are intentionally added to these beauty products for functional performance. Rubbing microbeads against your skin works great to exfoliate and stimulate blood flow, however there are plenty of natural alternatives that work just as good, don’t harm the environment and are even better for your health e.g. coffee grounds, ground almonds or salt. Luckily, more and more countries have recognized the damage microplastics are doing to our environment and have banned the use of microbeads in personal care products (still, when you buy new products make sure to check the ingredients for any plastics – we have provided a check list to go through at the end of this article). However, these make up only a small percentage of the microplastics that are released into our environment.
Washing clothes is one of the largest sources of microplastics entering our water ways – whenever we wash our clothing, tiny microfibers break off our polyester shirts or gym leggings and eventually get washed into the water supply. In fact, a study by Ross et al. 2021 has shown that 73% of micro fibers found in the Arctic are polyester and resemble fibers used in clothing and other textiles. Fleece and athletic wear are considered to give off the highest amounts of fibers per wash.
Photo credit: Beat the micro bead
Secondary microplastics are a result of larger plastics such as bottles, packaging material, abandoned fishing gear but also car tires degrading into smaller pieces. Now, a plastic bottle takes an estimated 450 years to degrade, however, when looking closer at the degradation process, we find that all that happens is that the plastic bottle breaks down into ever smaller pieces. A plastic bag that ends up in the ocean will float on the surface and will be impacted by sun, wind and waves, therefore it will slowly break down into secondary microplastics that easily enter the food chain as animals mistake it for food. Birds in particular often mistake the colorful leftovers of a bottle cap or a chocolate wrap for food. It was discovered that the main reason for that is that, to some animals and in particular sea birds, the plastic smells just like their food: the plastic collects algae on its way through the water systems, eventually smelling similar to algae when being eaten by krill (a seabird’s favorite)10. Ok, so why is this of concern to us and our planet?
Photo credit: Greenmatch
The risks of microplastics and plastic pollution
The ingestion of microplastics can lead to the obvious malnutrition and starvation of sea birds and smaller filter feeding organisms, as microplastics are ingested and falsely filling up the digestive tract, giving them a false sense of nourishment6,10. A resulting issue can be that when the populations of smaller organisms are negatively impacted, larger animals that feed on those creatures are also impacted. Furthermore, a recent study by Savoca et al. 2021 investigated 555 different marine species and actually found that the higher up in the food chain (trophic level) the higher the plastic ingestion, they also found that mobile predatory species such as blue sharks have the highest likelihood to ingest plastics.
Photo credit: Chris Jordan’s “Message from the Gyre”
As if that wasn’t enough to worry about, microplastics can also concentrate and transport toxic chemicals, for example so called Persistant Organic Pollutants (POPs), into the environment and eventually into the food chain. POPs were, and some still are, used in pesticides, pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals and unfortunately they are harmful to human health and the environment, having been reported to be highly carcinogenic2. Although POPs have been banned or at least restricted in over 100 countries since 2001, they keep being used in others. POPs are also called “the forever chemicals” as they are highly resistant to degradation and therefore accumulate in both the environment and animals, even centuries after last being released into the environment. As a good rule of thumb you can remember, the more fat an animal has, the more of these harmful POPs it will accumulate in their body tissue. This means that larger animals at the top of the food chain, mainly marine mammals but also sharks accumulate the most chemicals. The killer whales of British Columbia are considered to be the most contaminated animals in the world.
Furthermore, apart from plastic ingestion itself and harmful POPs attaching to plastics, plastic itself also contains additives, which are chemicals already implemented in the production process of the plastic product for functional performance. Those chemicals can then leech into the environment when plastic isn’t disposed of properly and can also be harmful to animals and the environment.
Photo credit: Kerstin Finke
So what risks can the intake and accumulation of plastic chemicals and POPs have? Many of these chemicals are carcinogenic and their uptake can lead to disruption of hormones, oxidative stress and reduced metabolism1. Some studies have also linked them to immunity impairment, cell damage and possible effects on feeding, movement, growth and reproductive success1. Although there is not enough research available yet to fully understand the effects of plastic consumption on humans, there is growing evidence of a decline in fertility in humans as a result of environmental toxins (such as POPs) impacting our hormones and damaging our reproductive systems9, which can possibly also be linked to the high amounts of plastics in our daily life (as discussed before, these harmful toxins attach to plastics). When we want to decrease our exposure with these toxins we should switch to fresh produce (as opposed to pre-packaged food) and organic food that hasn’t been treated with pesticides (it has been shown that the fertility of women farmers decreased in proportion to pesticide use8) and eliminate plastic from our lives as much as possible.
Another risk to human health is the consumption of seafood contaminated with microplastics that have accumulated environmental toxins. The fact is that fish have been swallowing plastics since the 1950s (when plastic started to be used on a larger scale) and a recent study by Savoca et al. 2021 has found that three-quarters of commercially fished species ingested plastic. So how can we help to stop all this from happening?
Photo Credit: 5 Gyres Institute
What can you do to help?
Eliminating microplastics out of the environment seems nearly impossible at the moment, which is why we need to work on stopping microplastics entering the environment. We have provided a list to help you get started with eliminating plastics in your life:
- Reduce, Reuse and Recycle are three little magic words you can start with in your daily life.
- Always bring a reusable bottle / coffee-to-go mug / metal straw / lunch box for take away.
- Use reusable bags for shopping.
- Quit smoking. Cigarette butts are polluting our beaches and oceans!
- Reduce your fish intake – a lot of plastic in the sea is discarded fishing nets.
- Celebrate consciously: Only buy natural glitter and confetti and avoid balloons – they often end up in the oceans where they slowly break down before being ingested by a marine animal.
- Switch to natural cosmetics and only support brands that are making an effort to be sustainable.
- Use shampoo and conditioner bars instead of products that come in plastic bottles. Even if the plastic bottle is recyclable, we still need to minimize the use of plastics in general and unfortunately, just because something is recyclable, doesn’t mean it will be.
- Choose a bamboo toothbrush over plastic toothbrushes.
- Use a zero waste safety razor instead of plastic shavers that use a lot of plastic over the years – it will also save you a lot of money to swap!
- Choose a natural cleaning sponge over normal plastic sponges.
- Buy as much loose vegetables and fruit as you can to avoid plastic packaging. Also bring your own reusable vegetable bags.
- Buy second hand clothes (nowadays millions of clothing items that have never even been worn are resold for a smaller prize on second hand apps such as Vinted or Depop). If you have to or want to buy new clothes, make sure to support brands that are sustainable: look for certified organic cotton, wool or hemp clothes and try not to buy clothes that contain plastic as these plastic fibers will end up in the water systems and are extremely hard to stop entering the oceans due to their small size and weight (look at the list down below for what to look out for).
- Most likely we already have clothes that contain plastics. So we should try and reduce the amount of plastic fibers entering the water ways. You can wash your clothes in a guppy bag or use a microplastic catching ball in your washing machine to reduce the amount of clothing fibers entering the water systems.
- Write to washing machine manufacturers and ask them to work on integrated microplastic filter systems (there is still a lot of work to do!).
- Actively participate in beach clean ups to eliminate more plastics from our environment. If you don’t live close to a beach, you can still clean up rubbish you see in your area – plastic pollution is not only a harm to sea animals, but also land animals.
- Support organizations that work towards better waste management, plastic reduction and awareness about the issue.
- Talk to your friends about the issue and what they can do to help – spread the word. Together we can make a difference.
Find out whether your products contain (micro-)plastic
If your clothes are made of Polyester, Nylon, Acrylic or Spandex – they are made of plastic, ok that sounds simple, right? Unfortunately it’s not always this easy to know whether your products contain plastic – there are so many names out there for different kinds of plastic, which is why we provided a list of ingredients that helps you find out exactly that! So, go ahead and have a look at the back of your beauty products, your cleaning products, your clothes and find out whether they contain microplastic.
Different types of plastic:
|Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
|Methyl Methacrylate Copolymer
|Methyl Methacrylate Crosspolymer
|Propylene Copolymer or Polypropylene
|Carbomer||Nylon / polyamide (PA)||polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)||Styrene Copolymer
|Vinyl Acetate Copolymer
|Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
(1) Auta, H. et al. (2017) Distribution and importance of microplastics in the marine environment: A review of the sources, fate, effects, and potential solutions. Environmental International. 102. pp. 165-176
(2) Nazhmetdinova, Aiman, Kassymbayev, Adlet and Chalginbayeva, Altinay (2017) Evaluation of the carcinogenic risks at the influence of POPs. Reviews on Environmental Health, vol. 32, no. 4, pp. 373-378. https://doi.org/10.1515/reveh-2017-0016
(3) Peng, X., Chen, M., Chen, S., Dasgupta, S., Xu, H., Ta, K., Du, M., Li, J., Guo, Z., Bai, S. (2018) Microplastics contaminate the deepest part of the world’s ocean. Geochem. Persp. Let. 9, 1–5.
(4) Ross, P.S., Chastain, S., Vassilenko, E. et al. (2021) Pervasive distribution of polyester fibres in the Arctic Ocean is driven by Atlantic inputs. Nat Commun 12, 106. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-20347-1.
(5) Savoca, M.S., McInturf, A.G., Hazen, E.L. (2021) Plastic ingestion by marine fish is widespread and increasing. Global Change Biology.
(6) Wright, S. (2013) The physical impacts of microplastics on marine organisms: A review. Environmental Pollution. 178. pp 483-492.
(7) World Health Organization (2019). Microplastics in drinking-water. ISBN 978-92-4-151619-8.
(8) Curtis KM, Savitz DA, Weinberg CR, Arbuckle TE (1999). The effect of pesticide exposure on time to pregnancy. Epidemiology. 1999 Mar; 10(2):112-7.
(9) Pizzorno J. (2018). Environmental Toxins and Infertility. Integrative medicine (Encinitas, Calif.), 17(2), 8–11.
(10) Savoca, M.S., Wohlfeil, M.E., Ebeler, S.E., Nevitt, G.A.. (2016) Marine plastic debris emits a keystone infochemical for olfactory foraging seabirds. Science Advances. 09 Nov 2016: E1600395.