What are microplastics?
Plastic waste in the oceans and in landfills tends to be associated with plastic bottles and chunky plastic waste, not with microplastics, which are tiny menaces! Addressing ocean microplastic pollution is no less urgent than other ocean plastic pollution. Part of the challenge has been that there is generally less familiarity with the ocean microplastic pollution issue. The National Ocean Service provides a succinct definition of microplastics, as small plastic pieces, less than five millimeters long, which can be harmful to our ocean and aquatic life. Unfortunately, marine life mistakes these microplastics for food and ingests them. It’s still a bit of a startling problem, because its scale is not quite yet grasped widely, but let’s make no mistake, microplastics seem like an indefensible problem –microplastics seem to be present in all our water at unhealthy levels. Something so new – plastic only became widely used from 1960’s – has caused so much havoc to marine and human health! Reiterating the urgent need to find ways to reduce microplastics pollution.
Are we drinking or eating microplastics?
Nova highlighted a study conducted by Orb Media which found that 93% of the brands they tested had more than 10 pieces of plastic thicker than a human hair in each bottle on average. According to these findings, a person that regularly drinks bottled water could be consuming large amounts of microplastics daily! Microplastics have been found in beer, honey and human feces! But little is known (at least not widely so) of the effects of these microplastics on our bodies. My expectation is that there can be no good that comes from ingesting plastics, not for marine life and certainly not for homo sapiens! So let’s do something about it, let’s find ways to reduce microplastics as much as possible.
Additional facts about micro plastic pollution
According to the United Nations, there are 51 trillion micro plastics in our seas, which is 500 times more than the stars in our galaxy! Yikes! In that same report the UN estimates that if we don’t take care of this issue, we will have more plastics in our oceans than fish by 2050. And again, we need to remember that this problem is grown exponentially over the last several decades, not centuries. If we don’t do something to reduce the microplastics in our oceans – imagine how the problem will be magnified the next several decades!
Major sources of microplastics pollution
Microplastics are everywhere because we simply have too much plastic. According to the European Parliament’s news site, there are two main categories of microplastic pollution: primary microplastics, where plastics are released as small particles; and secondary microplastics which are from degradation of larger plastics.
Did you know that 35% of primary source microplastics are from laundering synthetic garments? Athletic wear being a major source . Other significant sources of microplastics by category are:
- For primary microplastics, abrasions of tires through driving and microbeads in personal care products like scrubs; and
- For secondary microplastics, the degradation of large plastics like water bottles and fishing nets.
7 Ways to reduce microplastics
There isn’t yet a perfect solution to eliminate or reduce microplastics. The problem is rendered more challenging by the vast amount of plastic we consume in almost every aspect of life and by the tininess of microplastics. But there is something we can do as consumers and constituents. We can be advocates for change and demand our governments and brands address this issue. Here are my own thoughts on what I believe can help reduce microplastics.
1. Advocate, Support, Sign petitions
One effective way to help reduce micro plastics is through collective efforts. What we do at home can help but we need a critical mass to solve this gigantic problem. Luckily there are organizations out there working hard to reduce microplastic pollution. We need to support these organizations that are doing the yeoman’s work of lobbying, educating, advocating and doing research to refine the science in this space. These organizations typically rely on the goodwill and financial support of the general public. Examples of such organizations are:
- Plastic soup foundation – This organization has dedicated campaigns and initiatives to help tackle microplastic pollution. Check out their take action page
- Break Free from Plastic – This organization focuses on fighting petrochemicals, improving corporate accountability, promoting systematic change and building zero waste communities. They have petitions that you co-sign/sponsor.
- Plastic ocean foundation – This organization focuses on education and awareness. You can find more information here
2. Opt for natural fiber vs synthetic clothing
Natural fibers are fully biodegradable but synthetics are not or take very long to decompose shedding microplastics while they sit in landfills or our water bodies. Opt for recycled cotton, linens, hemp over synthetics such as polyester. Become a label reader and lets reduce our synthetic clothing consumption to reduce microplastics pollution. According the UN, synthetic clothes make up around 60% of our wardrobe so opting for more natural fibers over synthetics will go a long way to reduce microplastics from laundry.
3. Use microfiber catching devices when washing synthetic garments
Nylon and polyester are essentially plastic. Studies have shown that a single load of laundry releases roughly 700,000 microplastics, roughly about the size of a pack of gum. Wash your synthetic clothes in a guppyfriend bag or use a cora ball (GET LINK EARTH HERO). While they don’t trap all microplastics, they help. You can also attach microfiber filters to your washing machine to help reduce microplastics shedding from your laundry.
4. Avoid Microbeads
Microbeads are small plastics that are intentionally added to cosmetics for scrubbing and exfoliating. President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Water Act of 2015, banning use of beads in rinse-off cosmetics. But critics say that legislation is narrowly focused and does not include detergents, sandblasting materials and cosmetics that can be left on the skin. So we must remain on top of this. Beat the Bead suggests a few tips on how to avoid microbeads:
- Avoid cosmetics the labels of which say they have polyethylene, prophylactic acid (PLA), polystyrene or polyethylene terephthalate, as this means the cosmetics have microbeads
- Use scrubs with natural ingredients like oatmeal and brown sugar
- If you have products containing microbeads, you can dispose the contents into your trash, and then recycle the plastic packaging.
5. Reduce, Re use and Recycle Plastics
We can reduce microplastics at their prime source! Degradation of larger plastics contributes to about 70-80% of microplastic pollution. Reducing or eliminating single use plastics like water bottles would go a long way to help reduce microplastics.
Reducing microplastics will take collective efforts, lobbying for government mandated changes and technological innovations in industry. If you are learning of microplastics for the first time, challenge yourself to reach other people, to form a larger, more formidable collective. And support organizations that are already work in this space.
6. Use shorter and cooler washing cycles & avoid the delicate cycles
A recent study on the impact of washing conditions on microplastic shedding found washing clothes at 15C for 30 minutes led to a 30 per cent reduction in the number of microfibers shed, compared to a typical 85-minute cycle at 40C. Use cold and faster cycles as an easy way to reduce microplastics shedding from your clothes. Also, avoiding the delicate wash cycle can also reduce the number of microplastics shed. A study found the delicate setting uses twice as much water than typical cycles and releases on average 800,000 more microplastics per wash.
7. Choose Secondhand clothes
Most microfibers are shed in the first eight washes. Buying secondhand clothes not only keeps clothes out of landfills but opting for older clothes also means less are microfibers shed when you wash.