What Are Microplastics?

Amy Arani

The Plastic Problem

Before we get into what microplastics are, let’s talk about what creates them—plastic. According to Science Magazine, we’ve produced over 18 million pounds of it to date. If we continue to make and throw away as much as we do now, more than 26 million pounds will be in the environment by 2050. Around 8 million tons of that plastic finds its way into the ocean every year, and if we continue to use the ocean as a garbage dump, 2050 will give us more plastic than fish in the sea.

Although we have a sense of the environmental toll of plastic, we’re just beginning to understand microplastics. And microplastics could pose the greatest risk to our health and our environment. Read on to learn more about microplastics and what they’re doing to the earth, its animals, and us.  

All Plastic Will Become Microplastics

Microplastics are byproducts created when plastic breaks down into small pieces—less than five millimeters. (Click here for a visual.) These complex polymers concentrate toxins and are easy for marine animals to ingest. Since living beings can’t process them or the chemicals they absorb, that means trouble. Especially since some of those chemicals are linked to birth defects, cancer, and more.

An illustration of the sheer magnitude of the problem is that as much as 51 trillion microplastic particles – 500 times more than stars in our galaxy – litter the seas.

UN News

If They’re So Tiny, Why Are They So Bad?

Their small size is what makes them such a threat. You’re probably aware of the worldwide campaign to ban microbeads, the tiny plastic beads used in cosmetics and skin care that the US banned in 2015. According to a report from the New York State Attorney General’s Office, “In both the Great Lakes and Pacific gyres, virtually all of the plastic collected was microplastic under 4.75 mm in size.” Marine animals eat these toxic morsels, which end up in our bodies when we consume them. But that’s just part of the story. The UN estimates that 500 times more microplastic particles fill our oceans than stars fill our galaxy—51 trillion.

Yes, that’s an an incredible amount, but it’s not the whole problem. Meet microfibers.

Meet Microfibers—Microplastics from Your Clothing

Microfibers shed from synthetic clothing into our waterways via your washing machine. Microbeads and microfibers are too small for wastewater treatment plants to filter. That means that every time you wash your favorite synthetics, microfibers head into our lakes, rivers, and oceans. And as a result, 1.4 million trillion microfibers are in our oceans, mixing with microplastics to create aquatic smog.

The Environmental Toll

To animals, this plastic looks like food. Fish and even plankton eat these toxic morsels, which eventually end up in our bodies when we consume them. Microplastics have been proven to cause gut distress and molecular changes in earthworms. And in 2018, National Geographic reported that microplastics are harmful to aquatic animals, turtles, and birds, saying:  “They block digestive tracts, diminish the urge to eat, and alter feeding behavior, all of which reduce growth and reproductive output. Their stomachs stuffed with plastic, some species starve and die.” The Laysan albatross, a modern-day canary in the coal mine, is one species that is paying the price.

According to estimates, by 2050, 99 percent of earth’s seabirds will have ingested plastic.

United Nations

Welcome to Trash Island

The birds breed on Midway Atoll, an island deep in the North Pacific. Once a battleground, it’s now a National Wildlife Refuge. And although the atoll is far from human civilization, it’s full of trash.

In 2016, CNN reported that birds starved to death from bellies full of plastic. You see, the adults, who raise their chicks on the island, fly out to sea to hunt and mistake lighters and bottle caps for squid and crustaceans. The albatross, a bird known to live over 50 years, is another casualty of the sixth extinction. What’s more is that if we don’t turn the tide on our plastic problem, things are going to get worse for seafaring creatures. The UN has reported that by 2050, “99 percent of earth’s seabirds will have ingested plastic.”

Microplastics—A Threat to Human Health?

If plastic is so bad for animals, what can that mean for us?

Microplastics have been found in indoor and outdoor air, and we breathe them in—to the tune of 74,000 and 121,000 per year. We also consume them through the food we eat and the water we drink. If you drink bottled water, you’ll be consuming another 90,000 microplastics, while if you drink tap, only 4,000.

Time and research will tell what effect microplastics have on human health, but since plastic absorbs chemicals like DDT, PAHs, HCHs, PCBs, it’s probably not going to be good.

What Are Nanoplastics?

Because when microplastics degrade further, they become nanoplastics, which are small enough to cross the tissue barrier. Research in this area is scant, but one study showed that a scallop accumulated billions of 250nm particles (around 0.00025mm) in its intestines while even more particles measuring 20nm (0.00002mm) dispersed throughout its body. The study took place over six-hours.

How to Keep Microplastics out of the Ocean and out of Your Body

It’s a daunting problem, to be sure, especially since the biggest polluters out there are governments and corporations. But people in the US consume an average of three-quarters of a pound per day. So the truth is that each one of us simply has to consume less.

Consider packaging when you’re about to make a purchase and support brands with sustainable packaging. Bring reusable bags and containers when you go grocery shopping. Wash your synthetics in this magical bag designed to keep microfibers out of the water.

And check out the zero waste movement. One of the ways that we can start to stem the tide, one person at a time, is to reuse and recycle the plastic we already have. You don’t have to give up all your conveniences to make a difference, but finding new ways to consume is key.

Now you know all about microplastics, eco-fashionista! Do you have any tips on how we can use less plastic? Leave a comment below—we’d love to hear from you.