What Are Microplastics and What Can We Do About Them?
When we talk about pollution, we often discuss factories churning out toxic smoke, the millions of tons of waste sent to landfill every year, or our wild overconsumption of resources. These are clear and in your face issues. But now scientists are finding an increasingly greater prevalence of another type of pollution. One that is physically much smaller, but one whose impact may well be much, much bigger. These pollutants are called Microplastics. But what exactly are microplastics, where do they come from and what can we do about them?
What are Microplastics?
Microplastics are tiny plastic particles less than five millimetres in length (roughly the size of a sesame seed). Their true impact is yet to be fully understood. But one thing is for certain, they are finding their way into our water sources, our marine life, the food we eat and most worryingly, our bodies!
A new study on ocean pollution by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that up to 30% of plastic in the world’s oceans could be coming from microplastics. Every year, in fact, we release up to 2.85 million tonnes of microplastics into our waterways.
The report found that in areas with efficient waste management systems, microplastics contribute more to marine pollution than plastic waste. This indicates that plastic ocean pollution is a problem arising from our daily activities.
Microplastics may seem small, but this is a big deal. Consumption of microplastics by marine life can be extremely harmful or even fatal. And besides the danger to marine life, microplastics carrying bacteria and toxins travel up the food chain. This can potentially infect the food we eat.
Where are Microplastics coming from?
One of the largest contributors to microplastic pollution is the breakdown of larger plastic items. Items such as water bottles, plastic bags and food packaging. Whilst we continue to increase the rate at which we recycle, it’s estimated that as little as one-third of the items we put in the recycling bin actually end up being recycled. The UK exports a staggering amount of waste each year. So it’s no surprise that a portion of these items end up in our waterways. Scientists are now even discovering that microplastics are becoming airborne. So a policy of recycling alone is no longer a viable solution to the problem.
Health and beauty products also form a large part of the issue. Many of the products we use to make ourselves look good are actually having the opposite effect on our planet. Whilst the use of microbeads in cosmetics was thankfully banned in 2018 many products still contain microplastics and more often than not they come in plastic packaging. These hidden pollutants are escaping down our plugholes and finding their ways into our already fragile waterways.
Clothing also has huge implications for microplastics. A report by IMechE estimates that up to 35% of all ocean microplastics come from synthetic clothing. Which now makes up over 60% of all clothing worldwide. A single load of laundry could release hundreds of thousands of microplastics into our waterways. The University of California Santa Barbara estimates that a population of 100,000 people release the equivalent of 15,000 plastic bags into local waterways each day from washing their clothes. One synthetic fleece jacket releases an average of 1.7 grams of microfibers per wash!
How do we reduce Microplastics?
Have you ever considered how many of the products you use in your daily life contribute to microplastic pollution? It may seem like an impossibly daunting task to have any effect on the situation as an individual. However, there are many small and simple changes we can make to everyday habits that can have a big collective impact.
Reducing our consumption of large single-use plastics is surprisingly easy. Carry a water bottle and a keep cup instead of buying single-use and you could save the equivalent of 167 bottles and 500 plastic cups per year. Opt for an organic cotton tote bag instead of a plastic one at the supermarket and you could be saving 170 plastic bags. Instead of cling film opt for beeswax wraps, like these colourful and eco-friendly Beebee wraps.
When it comes to the clothes you wear opt for organic materials as much as you can. You’ll avoid the release of microplastics. Plus in the long term, they will biodegrade. Their plastic cousins, on the other hand, may yet see the next millennium. It is very difficult to fully avoid polyester in every item of clothing. You may well already own several items. Thankfully there is a solution. The amazing Guppy Friend Washing Bag will capture the microplastics released by your clothing in the washing machine and allow you to safely recycled them further down the line.
Many big beauty brands may be unable or unwilling to remove plastic from their core line of products. However, there are some amazing brands out their providing zero plastic options. Much of the time you’ll even find their products are actually better for your health too! Friendly soap makes gorgeous smelling and feeling shampoo’s, conditioners, face washes, and cleansers. They're kind to your skin and also kind to the planet. Georganics make toothbrushes and toothpaste the natural way and avoid plastic throughout their process.
For more information on how to reduce plastic use in your day to day life, take a look at our 10 easy tips to reducing plastic use in 2019.
Or check out our handy guide on seven simple swaps for plastic-free July!