Plastic contamination has become one of the world’s greatest challenges to solve.

The world produces millions of tonnes of plastics each year, most of which is immediately discarded after only one use.

When combined with our habit of littering, this means that huge amounts of plastic waste end up littered on the streets, or worse, in our oceans.

Once plastic waste is released into the environment, it can be exposed to the natural elements, like the sun’s radiation, wind, or rain. This, in turn, leads to plastic breaking up into smaller and smaller pieces, also known as fragmentation.

The fragments of plastic will continue to break down over time into even smaller fragments until they have broken down so much that they cannot be seen by the human eye anymore.

These tiny fragments of plastic are known as microplastics, and they have a huge negative impact on the environment.

What Are Microplastics?

Microplastics, as the word implies, are tiny pieces of plastic material which are generally too small to be seen by the human eye.

They usually come from tiny fibres in nylon clothes and other synthetic textiles, or are made up of fragments of larger pieces of plastic that have broken down in the natural environment.

Generally, any plastic particles smaller than 5 millimetres are considered to be microplastic.

Image of microplastics

“Microplastic” photo courtesy of Oregon State University / CC BY-SA 2.0

There are many different types of plastics that can commonly be found in everyday objects. These include polyethylene (e.g plastic bottles and plastic bags), polystyrene (e.g plastic cutlery, CDs), nylon (e.g an umbrella or a coat) and PVC.

When these plastic items are littered, the plastic eventually degrades due to the natural factors of the environment. This can occur via direct exposure to heat, oxidation, UV light, mechanical action.

To make matters worse, plastic does not biodegrade and therefore, every single plastic bag we have created (and every other plastic item as well) will be here even after we are long gone.

And, microplastics are even worse than normal plastic items because they can’t be recycled: They are so small that recycling them would be virtually impossible.

What are Microbeads?

Microbeads are tiny polyethylene spheres which, contrary to microplastics, do not come from the degradation of large pieces of plastic. Instead, they are manufactured on purpose to be put into consumer products, such as exfoliating body washes and facial scrubs.

These tiny plastic microbeads are usually less than 1 millimetre at their largest.

Toothpaste with red microbeads in it

Example of Red Microbeads in Toothpaste. Photo courtesy of Thegreenj / CC BY-SA 3.0

Well, it’s fairly simple.

Are you wondering how these microbeads end up polluting our oceans?

To put it clearly, every time you brush your teeth, that toothpaste you use washes down the drain. Then, the microbeads in the toothpaste continue on its way through water treatment plants.

However, because of the small size of microbeads, they aren’t easily removed by filters. As a result, they pass through water treatment plants without getting caught, and then end up in the ocean.

Bet you didn’t see that one coming.

How do Microplastics Enter the Environment?

Usually, microplastics enter the environment either through the breaking-down of bigger pieces of plastic, through the use of cosmetics with microbeads, and through our clothes.

1. The Degradation of Bigger Pieces of Plastic

As we mentioned before, plastic does not biodegrade. Rather, it degrades, or breaks down into smaller pieces.

As you may have seen before, plastic waste, such as water bottles or bags, float around the ocean where they are constantly exposed to heat and abrasion caused by the wind, waves, and solar radiation.

Trash on the beach breaking down into microplastics

As time passes, these plastic objects begin to break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Over time, they break down into microscopic pieces of plastic, earning the name microplastic.

2. From Cosmetics

Microbeads can be found in our everyday cosmetics, such as skin care and hygiene products.

Toothpaste and facial scrubs, to list some, are victims of microbead additions, which are intentionally added to enhance their cleaning and abrasive properties.

When microplastics are washed down the drain, they are too small to be filtered out by wastewater treatment plants.

What does this mean?

Well, the microbeads in your toothpaste that you washed down the sink will eventually be dumped back out into a lake or river, and make it back to the ocean.

3. Synthetic Clothing

Another way microplastics enter the environment is through our clothing. 

When we wear or wash any clothing made from synthetic material, small cloth fibres are rubbed and come apart from the larger piece of clothing.

These small pieces of synthetic fibres, known as microfibres, are also a type of microplastic.

When microfibres rub off your clothing during normal use, they can end up in the air we breathe. And when washed, synthetic clothing will shed small plastic particles, which end up in your home wastewater system and eventually make it to the ocean.

How do Microplastics Affect the Environment?

So far we have covered what microplastics and microbeads are, and all the common sources where they can be found. But, what about their effect on our environment? Why are microplastics bad for the environment?

We produce millions of tonnes of plastic around the world every year, so it should not come as a surprise to learn that we can’t keep up with the amount of plastic we use and discard every day.

This is why out of the millions of tonnes of plastic produced globally, only a very little amount is recycled.

So, where does the rest go?

Sadly, most of it ends up in landfills. And because plastic does not usually biodegrade, it is considered one of the most pollutant sources of our soils and our oceans.

Plastic bottles littered and polluting a beach

Microplastics can be found in all of our oceans, as ocean currents cycle microscopic pieces of plastic from one place to another.

And that’s not all. To make matters worse, microplastic debris is having a huge negative impact on marine life.

Microplastics are commonly mistaken for food by marine animals, as they are colourful and resemble actual pieces of food.

When lugworms, zooplankton, and other small marine wildlife eat microplastics, their stomach fills up and they aren’t able to eat any real food. Soon, the consumption of microplastics leads to their death, from starvation.

Yet, this isn’t even the worst problem.

When lugworms and other small animals consume microplastic, the microplastic can be transferred to other animals that eat them. This happens through a process called trophic transfer, which is the transfer of energy through the food chain.

Here’s how it works:

Small organisms like zooplankton and small fish are near the bottom of the food chain, which means that they are consumed by lots of other animals like larger fish or seals.

When any larger animal eats zooplankton, the microplastics that were consumed by the zooplankton could get transferred to the larger animal.

Through this process, the entire ecosystem and food chain is affected by microplastics.

Microplastics could leach toxic chemicals into the body of any animal that consumes it. And, when microplastics enter the food chain, they could affect the balance of the entire marine ecosystem.

What Can We Do To Reduce Microplastics in the Environment?

It’s obvious that microplastics are bad for the environment, and they may even affect the health of humans! So, how can we reduce the amount of microplastics that enter the environment?

First of all, let’s try to travel back in time and imagine a pre-industrialized world, in which technology did not exist yet. How did the Kings and Queens of Medieval times live without plastic bags, straws, or bottles?

The answer is so simple you could fall off your chair: They just did.

And if they did, so can we. It’s just a matter of being more conscious and more responsible about it. We don’t need single-use plastic at all. We truly don’t.

Here are some ways in which we can replace plastic items for some more eco-friendly options. We can start by:

  • Reducing the amount of packaged food we eat by buying more fresh produce.
  • Reusing containers.
  • Using reusable bags for our groceries.
  • Using biodegradable materials, such as polylactide (PLA), polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA).
  • Recycling properly.
  • Organizing or participating in a beach or a river cleanup.
  • Avoiding products that contain microbeads (exfoliators, toothpaste, scrubs, etc).
  • Supporting bans on single-use plastic items, like bags.
  • Spreading the word!

Four reusable water bottles on a table

If we take matters into our hands, we can definitely start doing something to help with this ever-growing issue.

But, we need to do something fast.

If we don’t change our plastic-using habits, by 2050 there will be more plastic waste in our oceans than there’ll be fish.

Take a moment to let that sink in.

The plastic we use today and discard tomorrow will still be here after we are long gone, and it will definitely come back to haunt us, as well as our descendants.

The plastic we throw away today will be in the land we step on, in the water we bathe in, in the food we eat, and in the air we breathe.

Do we really want this issue to continue getting worse? The time has come for us to take matters into our hands. Each of us has the power to do something, however small that may be.

You can start off with simple things like reducing your use of everyday plastic items like straws or bottled water. Many single-use plastic items could be easily removed from our lives.

In the end, every little bit can help.

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