Let’s take a closer look at the smallest form of plastic pollution: microplastics
It’s obvious that a plastic bag or bottle floating in the ocean can pose a threat to the aquatic environment. It’s easy enough to pick up plastic litter from the beach and drop it in the nearest garbage can. And It’s not overly difficult to avoid buying these plastic products in the first place and to choose eco-friendly alternatives instead.
But some of the most harmful threats to our planet require a little more effort to detect. For example, some particles may be so small that they slip between our fingers, but can still pose a massive threat to the environment. As custodians of the planet, we must do our best to recognize any and all risks, no matter how big or small.
So let’s take a closer look at the smallest form of plastic pollution: let’s put the microscope on microplastics.
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic measured at 0.5 millimetres long or less (the size of a sesame seed).
There are two types of microplastics: primary and secondary.
Primary microplastics are plastics that are intentionally designed to be small for commercial use. An example of this is microbeads, which are tiny pieces of polyethylene plastic added as exfoliants to some health and beauty products, like hand soap and shower gel. Other examples are plastic pellets used in industrial manufacturing and plastic fibres in synthetic textiles, like nylon clothing and fishing nets.
Secondary microplastics are the side effect that results from any plastic product. Unlike natural or organic matter, plastic never fully breaks down into harmless particles. Larger plastic products like bottles, bags and straws sit in landfills, our oceans and on other parts of the planet. Over hundreds of years, these plastic products are broken down by environmental weathering such as rain, wind abrasion, wave action or solar radiation. What remains are the tiny plastic particles known as secondary microplastics.
A study by the World Wildlife Foundation found that humans could be ingesting as much as five grams of microplastics every week—that’s the equivalent of a credit card!
What harm do microplastics cause?
Microplastics are washed or swept away to infiltrate the daily lives of animals and humans. They pose a severe threat to marine life, as they pass through filtration systems and end up in bodies of water where they are mistaken for food or ingested unintentionally, threatening the lives of aquatic creatures from plankton to whales.
Microplastics are also ingested by humans via the food we eat, water we drink and air we breathe. The plastics have been detected in commercial seafood and drinking water and research is being done into how they interact with other harmful chemicals that enter our bodies.
A lot of the time we don’t even realize that the microplastics are there; they leach out of plastic containers, hide in dust and are ingested via the food we eat. Research is still being done to determine the exact effects of microplastics on human health, but a study by the World Wildlife Foundation found that humans could be ingesting as much as five grams of microplastics every week—that’s the equivalent of a credit card. Read that again—we may be consuming a credit card of microplastics every week. Does that freak anyone else out?!
What can we do to minimize the threat of microplastics?
Well, in a nutshell, end plastic pollution! A big part of the fight against plastic pollution is education. Educating ourselves and others on what types of products are harmful to the environment and can result in microplastics is the first step towards preventing the production and ultimate decomposition of these products.
Avoid single-use plastics and instead use reusable containers, bottles, bags and other eco-friendly alternatives. Recall one of the earliest lessons from your elementary school days and reduce, reuse, recycle whenever possible. Support sustainable brands that are aware of the hazard of microplastics and avoid them in their products. Pick up any pieces of waste lingering on land and the ocean, participate in beach clean-ups —get involved in any way that you can!
There is a long way to go to eliminating plastics altogether, but every micro-step we can take can make a big impact on protecting our planet.