Microplastics are small pieces or fragments of plastic waste. They are generally classified as any plastic particles that are less than 5mm (0.2in) long. For reference, 5mm is a about the length of a grain of rice.
Did you know that the average person consumes 50,000 microplastics per year? Today, we’ll get into the origins of microplastics and how you can take steps to avoid them.
The Origins of Microplastics
Microplastics have been found in the deepest of oceans and the tallest of mountains. They can be found anywhere on Earth, including in the air that you breathe. In fact, a recent study from April 2019 even discovered microplastic particles falling in the rain in southern France.
But where exactly do all these microplastic particles come from?
Most microplastics are formed when larger pieces of plastic are broken down into smaller pieces through natural weathering processes (for example, by the sun or by waves). During this degradation process, microplastic particles are released into the surrounding environment (including the air, ocean, and soil).
For example, rubber wears off from our shoes as we walk. Synthetic fibres get worn off from our clothing when they are machine washed (these are known as microfibres). And when plastic pollution in the ocean is broken down by waves and sunlight, microplastics are released into the ocean.
Microbeads are another form of microplastic, manufactured on purpose to be added into beauty and cosmetic products, like exfoliating body washes and facial scrubs. However, they only make up about 2% of the world’s total microplastics.
Microplastics are everywhere on Earth, so it’s no surprise that humans inhale microplastics from the air, and ingest microplastics from food and drinking water.
So, how can you avoid microplastics? Let’s get started:
8 Ways to Avoid Exposure to Microplastics (And Reduce Your Microplastic Consumption)
1. Reduce (or better yet, eliminate) your bottled water intake.
Drinking water is one of the main sources of microplastics in our bodies. Microplastic particles have been found in almost every brand of bottled water, and in tap water from around the world as well.
On average, however, bottled water contains 22 times more microplastic particles than tap water does! If you only drank from bottled water, you would consumer 130,000 microplastic particles per year just from drinking water, compared with 4,000 particles per year from tap water.
As you can clearly see, transitioning to tap water will reduce your microplastic consumption by a significant amount. To further reduce (or completely) remove microplastics from your drinking source, you can look into filtering your tap water.
Plastic bottle waste itself also contributes to the creation of new microplastics, and can have a detrimental effect on the environment. So stop using bottled water and start using that reusable water bottle!
2. Reduce your shellfish consumption.
You’ll find most well-researched climate advice laced with a “go vegan” attitude. Stopping consumption at the source could be the ultimate answer. Contaminated shellfish is a considerable source of microplastic particles and could be a quick fix if your current diet incorporates fish regularly.
Shellfish absorb microplastics from polluted ocean water. Fish and other marine wildlife can also mistake bits of plastic for food. These bits of microplastic particles are transferred along the food chain and may eventually be ingested by us.
3. Avoid Products with Microbeads
Microbeads are small plastic beads which are added to some beauty and cosmetic products, such as some toothpastes, exfoliating body washes and facial scrubs. Microbeads are a form of microplastic.
Even though microbeads are banned in some places of the world, they are still produced legally in some countries.
If it isn’t obvious enough, avoid products with microbeads! Not only will you avoid direct exposure with microbeads, but you’ll also be discourage manufacturers from adding microbeads to their products, which harms you and the environment.
4. Buy Clothing made of Non-Synthetic Material
Synthetic fabrics like nylon, spandex, and polyester are made out of plastic. Over time, these pieces of clothing will shed fibres as they are washed or rubbed against rough surfaces like walls. These fibres are known as microfibres, and are a form of microplastic.
If you want to eliminate your exposure to microfibres at home or where you work, avoid wearing clothes made out of synthetic fabric. Instead, opt for fabrics like natural cotton.
5. Air-Dry Your Clothes
Synthetic fabrics shed microfibres when they are machine dried. Air drying your clothing can reduce the number of microfibres that your clothes shed.
You can learn more about ways to reduce microfibre pollution in this article by Plastic Pollution Coalition.
6. Avoid Glitter
Glitter is made of either PVC or PET (both types of plastic). If you’ve ever spilled glitter or worked with it, then you’ll know that it’s extremely hard to clean up. Once spilled, glitter can rest in the air or in your room, contributing to the microplastics problem.
7. Avoid plastic products in general
I’ve just finished talking about glitter, but another way to avoid microplastics is to just avoid as many plastic products as possible.
All plastic products will eventually shed plastic particles over time, but here are some of the worst offenders that I know of (and that you should try to avoid).
- Tennis balls: The fuzzy outer shell of tennis balls are made of plastic and are easily shed off.
- Styrofoam Containers and Cups: Styrofoam (or polystyrene) is a type of plastic. If you’ve ever used styrofoam before, then you’ll know that it breaks down easily into smaller pieces.
- Cigarette butts: Not only are cigarettes bad for your health, but they also shed microfibres (not to mention other toxic chemicals as well!)
Any plastic product can break down into smaller plastic particles over time. If you avoid plastic products in general, then you can limit your own exposure to microplastics and also limit the microplastics resulting from the degradation of plastic waste,
8. Stay updated
There isn’t much research about microplastics because they are a relatively recent “thing” that we’ve discovered. Staying updated on the status of microplastics and the methods to avoid microplastics may be your best bet in the future to avoid microplastics and their health effects.
But for now, let’s get into a brief summary about the health effects of microplastics (and why you should care about the number of microplastic particles that you consume).
The Health Effects of Microplastic Consumption
The following is an extract from another post on our blog titled “The Effects of Microplastics on Human Health (Facts & Studies).” You can read more about the health effects of microplastics by clicking the link above to read the full article.
“No one really knows for certain if microplastics are actually harmful. This is another one of the ‘unknowns’ in today’s society.
Currently, research on this topic is still very limited. Not all studies conclusively found that microplastics were harmful to humans.
For example, any microplastic larger than 150 microns, or 0.15 millimetres (the size of fine sand grains) should be able to pass through our body without any issues.
The problem occurs when we get to even smaller particles. There is a high likelihood that these microplastic particles could indeed be dangerous to the human body.
For example, there is some evidence that microplastics can absorb toxic chemicals and then release them in an animal’s digestive systems. This would obviously be bad for our health.
There is also evidence that potentially-toxic plastic nanoparticles may be able to migrate through the intestinal wall during digestion. Whether they then enter the blood stream is not clear, however.
Another rather unnerving study demonstrated that nanoplastic particles lodged in the brains of fish affected their behaviour.
The study found that plastic particles made fish eat slower and explore their surroundings less. However, there is no evidence right now that nanoplastics penetrate brain tissue in humans, let alone affect behaviour.
The health concerns with microplastics are very serious, and more research needs to be done. We do not know enough about the potential health risks of microplastics.”
Special thanks to Adam Middleton, who helped write a small portion of this article:
Adam Middleton is the Business Development Manager for Takeaway Packaging — a major supplier of eco-friendly food packaging products in the UK. With a Bachelor’s degree in Human Geography and a Masters in International Marketing, Adam has a keen interest in the environmental impact of consumerism. As such, Adam has helped to develop Takeaway Packaging’s range of plastic-free products that help to fight microplastic pollution at the source.