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An in-depth look at microplastics, the start of a macro problem

Written by Science

They’re everywhere. From the Equator to Antarctica, not even the farthest reaches of the planet remain untarnished by microplastics. Including you. Where do these tiny plastic particles come from? Are they harmful? What can you do?

Officially defined as a bit of plastic less than 5mm in diameter, microplastics are classified into 4 main categories.

Primary microplastics: Designed to be small from the outset, these include everything from microfibres to microbeads.

Secondary microplastics: Broken down by sunlight or wave action, these particles start out life as bigger plastic objects.

Microfibres: Woven together to make synthetic fabrics found in cleaning cloths, upholstery and clothing.

Microbeads: Manufactured with exfoliating properties, often found in personal care products.

Unlike macroplastic with which we are all-too-familiar, microplastics are often invisible to the naked eye, making them difficult (if not impossible) to trace. We’re all aware of microplastics in beauty products following the UK ban in 2018, but what about the more unexpected places?

In your food 

It’s not a nice thought. But, according to research published in Environmental Science and Technology, the average person will consume 39,000-52,000 microplastic particles every year. And that’s just through food.

Beauty and cleaning products

 Face scrubs, toothpastes, body wash…the tiny plastic exfoliators in these products are an unnecessary replacement for natural alternatives such as oats and ground almonds. This was recognised by a UK ban introduced in 2018, with the EU set to follow by 2020.

Tyres

Washed down drains, tiny bits of plastic residue from car tyres can eventually find their way to the oceans.

Teabags

How many students love a cuppa? Perhaps less of us following the realisation that teabags often contain microplastics that dissolve in your drink. Try loose tea varieties for a safer bet.

In the air

Ever seen someone wearing a surgeon-like face mask on the streets of a big city? This may in part be due to growing concern over the cleanliness of the air we breathe. If taken into consideration with the aforementioned study, inhalation may put our annual intake of microplastics in excess of 74,000.

In the sea

Given it makes up 70% of the Earth’s surface, it should come as no surprise that microplastic contamination extends to the sea. These may be ingested by marine organisms, passed up the food chain and end up on your plate.

Bottled water

By now it should be drilled into us that drinking from a plastic bottle isn’t great for the environment. But it also isn’t good for our health. Plastic bottles may give you an additional 90,000 microplastics per year compared to an additional 4000 for those drinking tap water.

Washing machines

Every time you wash synthetic clothing, thousands of the microfibres they’re made up of become dislodged and end up in our waterways.

Marine coatings

This includes anti-fouling paint used for boat hulls which is designed to flake off as ships move across ocean basins.

Nurdles

Used in the large-scale manufacture of almost all plastics we know, nurdles, otherwise known as ‘mermaid tears’ are becoming increasingly common on our beaches.

Glitter

I hate to dull the sparkle, but when you think that the stuff we use to decorate our faces, clothes and gift wrap is actually countless bits of plastic, glitter becomes a ready-made nightmare.

Despite an explosion of scientific interest in recent years, the long-term effects of microplastics on our health are still unclear.

Research in marine mammals suggests a cumulative effect could lead to immune system damage, hormone disruption and malnutrition. Some evidence even suggests that the Endocrine Disruptor Chemicals (EDCs) associated with microplastics may be more toxic in smaller doses.

Where does this leave us?

It may seem like making changes is useless. But if something as tiny as microplastics can have such a big effect, so can you.

Next time you’re doing anything, whether it’s driving, swimming, eating, drinking, partying or simply breathing, take a moment to realise that microplastics follow you everywhere.

Plastic has become a part of you

Last modified: 28th October 2019

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