While we all may have heard of microplastics and that they are harmful to the environment, we may not know the extent of the issue, or what we can do about it.
What Are Microplastics
Primary Microplastics are small pieces of plastic 5mm or less in size, that were purposefully manufactured. They include:
- Microfibres from clothing
- Microbeads used primary in cosmetics or as filler in sport field astroturf
- Plastic Pellets / Nurdles
Secondary Microplastics come from the breakdown of larger plastics once they enter the environment. Sources include:
- Water and soda bottles
- To-go containers
- Tire wear
- Fishing nets
- Plastic bags
- Tea bags
An ingredient or product is considered biodegradable if bacteria can break it down to at least 90-percent water, CO2, and organic material within six months. Plastic is incredibly far from being biodegradable - it can take hundreds or thousands of years to break into smaller and smaller components, never fully breaking down.
Where are Microplastics Found?
Microplastics have been found from the top of Mount Everest to the bottom of the deepest ocean trenches. Microplastics were recently even found in human blood, while scientists found particles in almost 80% of people who were tested. Earthworms, which break down particles in soil, have been found to suffer when exposed to microplastics. Tire wear as well as using sewage sludge from waste-water treatment plants as agricultural fertiliser are huge contributors to microplastics in soil.
Waste-water treatment plants are only now starting to develop technology to filter out microplastics. In Hamburg, the water treatment plants can only catch plastic particles larger than 3mm. Everything smaller than this will end up in the Elbe River, or on fields as fertiliser.
Why Microplastics Are So Harmful
Research is ongoing to establish the effects of microplastics on the environment and on humans. Here are a few of the effects which have been observed:
- Build-up in the body
- Absorb toxins from the environment, releasing them once ingested
- Affect membrane and cell functions
Where are Microplastics Banned?
Legislation against microplastics around the world has primarily concentrated on microbeads in cosmetics. The Netherlands were the first country to introduce a ban on microbeads in cosmetic products in 2014. Several countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Sweden, Australia, Canada, France, Italy, India, Korea and New Zealand have followed suit. The European Union will first draft legislation to restrict microplastics in the fourth quarter of 2022.
In July 2021 the European Union banned the sale of single-use plastics in plates, cutlery, straws, balloon sticks and cotton buds. France has banned plastic packaging on produce, and will phase-out single-use plastics until 2040. Spain will ban plastic packaging on produce in 2023.
What Can I Do To Stop Microplastics?
- Choose products with the least or no plastic packaging - Influence with your money!
- Shop in unpackaged shops
- Avoid to-go coffee cups - try to bring a metal thermos with you
- Buy clothes made of natural materials
- Use public transport instead of your car to avoid tire wear particles
- Check any products that you buy for microplastics in the ingredients using this guide