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Microplastics: What They Are and How They Harm the Planet

Microplastics are in our food, the air, and even drinking water. Here's what they are, how they're harming the planet, and how to avoid them.

Written by
Esther Abisola Omole

When asked to name something plastic, most of us picture the same few items: a water bottle, a grocery bag, maybe single-use utensils. The reality is plastic is everywhere, from electronics and furniture to shampoo and toothpaste.

Even though we think of plastic’s impact in terms of larger products, the truth is, plastic is also incredibly harmful in its smallest form—as tiny fragments called microplastics.

What Are Microplastics?

Although plastic waste can be found in many sizes, the term "microplastics" is reserved for debris that is less than five millimeters, or about the size of a sesame seed. Most microplastics are sorted into two categories based on how they form.

Primary microplastics are designed for commercial use, like “microbeads” in cosmetics, lotions, and toothpaste or microfibers found in textiles or netting. Although the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 prohibits manufacturing microbeads in cosmetic products in the U.S., primary microplastics are still accumulating in our environment.

Secondary microplastics are particles that are broken down from larger plastic products (such as water bottles and containers), usually through environmental means like erosion. Most of these products will not decompose completely.

Why Are Microplastics a Problem?

Because plastic is found everywhere, its impact is multifaceted. Humans have produced more than 8 billion tons of plastic, recycling less than 10% since the 1950s.

Instead of dissolving or reducing, plastic just gets smaller over time and ends up in rivers, lakes, and oceans. This is likely why an estimated 14 million tons of microplastics live on the ocean floor. Plastic is an enduring material, meaning microplastics will continue to accumulate for generations before breaking down.

How Microplastics Harm People and the Planet

Microplastics are a sustainability issue for many reasons, the first being the lengthy life cycle of plastic that gets ingested by human populations.

In the U.S., we ingest about 74,000 particles a year. The World Health Organization notes particles can be found "in marine water, wastewater, fresh water, food, air, and drinking water (both bottled and tap water)." Textiles produce 35% of this marine microplastic pollution, meaning microfibers from textiles run off into the water.

Microplastics are also present in the atmosphere, and many are broken down into dust and indigestible particulates. Chemicals found in some of these plastics have been linked to health problems, such as reproductive harm or obesity.

Because the majority of plastics—including primary microplastics—aren’t recycled, they usually end up in landfills, incinerators, or the environment. These facilities are disproportionately located in BIPOC and low-income areas. According to a report from The New School, 79% of incinerators are located in primarily BIPOC communities. Emissions from these plastics release pollutants into the atmosphere and are linked to higher rates of asthma, respiratory disease, and cardiovascular disease.

Microplastic waste also has a negative impact on the environment. Aquatic life and birds can mistake microplastics for food. Coastal communities that depend on seafood also face significant health risks.

In the Maldives, known for their extensive marine biodiversity, tourists produce twice as much trash per day as residents. As a result, its beaches and waters have one of the world’s highest levels of microplastics. Researchers also collected 71 triggerfish and found they all had microplastics in their bellies—plastic that is ultimately ingested by residents who eat these fish.

Tips to Reduce Your Microplastic Contribution

1. Consider Non-Synthetic Clothes

Microfibers, a type of primary microplastic, are found in many textiles, including the clothes we wear. Synthetics, like nylon and polyester, are among the most common microfiber materials.

You can avoid them by switching to natural fibers like cotton, linen, and wool. You can also find brands that create textiles sourced from recycled fibers. The Girlfriend Collective, for example, is turning plastic bottles, netting, and other waste into bras and activewear.

It’s important to note that even clothes that claim to be 100% natural can contain up to 30% chemical additives to maintain durability and resistance. However, making the effort to switch will decrease your microplastic contribution.

2. Change Your Laundry Routine

Microfibers are frequently found in laundry wastewater. Washing fuller loads, using cooler water, doing laundry less frequently, and air-drying clothes can reduce microfiber emissions in your routine. You can also toss the Cora Ball into the washing machine, which helps mitigate microfiber shedding during the process.

3. Cut Out Unnecessary Single-Use Plastics

Because we know secondary microplastics are created from larger plastics, it’s important to reduce our use of these products. This could include bringing a reusable tote bag to the grocery store to avoid plastic bags, using reusable straws and takeaway utensils, opting for Stasher bags over Ziplocs, and getting a trusty reusable water bottle.

4. Solidify Your Recycling Practices

We know that the U.S. only recycles 10% of plastic it uses. Scientists are working on creating packaging that's easier to recycle, but in the meantime, you can do your part. Check that the products you use contain recyclable polymers or comply with your local recycling protocol.

The Takeaway

Microplastics have a huge impact on the health and well-being of communities, as well as ecological and environmental preservation. Ultimately, the significant reduction of these particles from our land and atmosphere can’t be achieved solely on an individual level. However, learning more about microplastics can help us lessen our contribution and be active in protecting the people and environments most affected by them.