Microplastics are born from the breakdown of larger plastic materials, namely water bottles, plastic bags (by the way: on average, only used for 12 minutes!), and synthetic clothing. When plastics meet a natural environment (like wind, heat from sunlight, crashing waves), they break down- but not in a good way. Instead, they break down and a whole lot like food for sea life, and also carry toxins into waterways.
By definition, microplastics are plastic particles which are less than 5 millimeters in size. If you can’t visualize 5 millimeters, pull out 5 of your ‘plastics’ (credit, debit, ID, etc), and stack them flat. Or, look at a single long-grain rice, which is a little bit bigger at around 7 millimeters.
According to The National Geographic series Planet or Plastics?, between 4.7 and 12.8 MILLION metric tonnes of microplastics enter the ocean from coastal regions around the world annually. From there, microplastics are tiny enough that they look like food to aquatic life, and many of those same species look like food to us. Research continues on how that may affect humans, but to date, 114 aquatic species have microplastics in them, and over half of those species are regularly consumed by humans. At this rate, there could one day be more plastics than fish in the sea.
Microplastic in the Laundry Room: Microfibres
There are 5 predominant types of microplastics, the most common are microfibres from clothing. Up to 60% of our clothing have some sort of microplastic in them, due to synthetic materials including polyester, nylon, acrylic and/or polyamide. It’s not as if we are discarding clothing directly into waterways. Instead, the issue is that each time we wash our clothes, they release thousands of plastic particles, each time we wash them.
We can even be releasing microfibres when we’re outdoors since moisture wicking exercise clothing and hiking gear is typically synthetic. In 2016, a study called the Rozalia Project examined the presence of microfibres in a popular hiking area that is also an important waterway to the Hudson River. Although the highest count of microplastics were near the wastewater treatment plant, there was a notable presence at a remote trailhead to Mount Marcy, where hikers would have parked and prepped for the walk. Rachel Miller, founder of the Rozalia Project explains that “If you’re going to wipe your knees against rocks while you’re climbing, there’s likely to be abrasion.”
Related Post: 6 hidden toxins in your laundry and how to reduce them
Microplastics in the Bathroom: Microbeads
They say, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. In my opinion, that saying rings true with microbeads since they show up as little shimmery bits in toothpaste, or the exfoliating/cleaning beads in body wash.
For companies, the attraction is that they are cheaper than natural ingredients that exfoliate and clean. Microbeads are oftentimes labeled as “polyethylene” or “polypropylene” in cosmetics, acting as a cleaner or exfoliant. They never biodegrade or dissolve, so their presence will only increase. In 2016, Canada officially declared Microbeads toxic. The Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change has found that of the microplastics present in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, 14% are microbeads.
Related article: Natural Blemish Busters for a Clear Face
How you can take action ‘at the source’
In the Ensia docuseries on plastics, Watershed protection Manager Karen North stresses that the best way to change the tide on plastics is to take action on ‘source control’. Our washing machines, what we discard improperly, and our drains are some of the ways that plastic is broken down and microplastics released. However, the root of the problem is that we keep buying plastics!
In short, less plastic in our homes and lifestyles equal less plastics. Period.
Get started in big and small ways- but the most important thing is to get started!
- Make your own personal care products, or read labels to avoid “polyethylene” or “polypropylene.”
- Buy wool and organic cotton; avoid synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, acrylic and polyamide.
- Avoid over washing: re-wear clothing so that they’re actually dirty by the time they’re being washed. Not just because you wore them once!
- Swap out your plastic bags and veggie bags for reusables (that are NOT synthetic!)