Microplastics are big news. Like they should be. From United Nations, to Obama everyone’s talking about it. To understand why they’ve been making the headlines, we must first understand what makes them so notorious.
First things first, what are microplastics exactly?
Microplastics, are very very tiny plastic particles. By definition any plastic less than five millimeters in size is a microplastic. That’s about the size of a sesame seed. Microplastics are usually formed in two ways. Firstly, they are found as microbeads in toothpastes or cosmetic exfoliants. These are called Primary Microplastics as they are created to be tiny from the start. The second kind are ones that are formed due to degeneration or breaking down of larger plastics like bags, bottles, synthetic clothes etc. These are called Secondary Microplastics.
Okay so they are tiny. But what’s the big deal?
Hate to say it, but size matters. Because of their size these plastics are much much harder to detect, manage, and filter out than regular plastic waste. They pass through water filtering systems, float in air and even pass food sanitation processes. This makes it very easy for them to end up in the oceans even if filtration is in place. But that’s not all.
They are everywhere. In our air, salt, the food we eat, the water we drink. Multiple tests have confirmed that human bodies consume and pass enough microplastics to create a credit card, every year!
And if they affect us so much, one can only imagine the adversities ocean life faces. Most marine animals consume these and aren’t able to eat food later because the microplastics fill up their bodies. Marine or human, as microplastics pass our bodies they cause chemical toxicity, affect growth and reproductive function. And sometimes when microplastics break down they become nanoplastics, which are even tinier bits of plastic. They are almost impossible to separate from environment and can even enter cells causing changes at cellular level in an organism.
Umm, scary. How can I help?
We have two words for you. Learning and perspective. While microplastics are old, their impacts have only recently been discovered and we continue to learn more every day. Try to learn more about them, and their many technical names by which they go on several ingredients lists.
Secondly perspective. Plastic isn’t the problem. Perspective is. Plastic can be helpful. It helps us maintain sanitation, especially in medical services, and create new things every day. But correct disposal and usage is key. As well as avoiding plastic wherever possible. Here are some ways in which we can reduce microplastics contamination in our everyday:
Did you do laundry?
A lot of clothing is made of plastic: from polyester t-shirts, to stretchy yoga pants. Clothing is one the biggest contributors of microplastics in the ocean. Why, you ask? Because as we use and wash clothing, wear and tear causes tiny fibres to separate.These fibres are in fact microplastics. You can help by
- Avoiding synthetic clothing that contains plastics.
- Install a microplastic filter in your laundry machine that catches these fibres before they enter waterways.
- Wash clothes mindfully - less washing and washing in a fuller machine reduces wear and tear.
- Using your machine at a lower setting also reduces wear and tear.
- Air drying (as against high speed spinning) helps too.
No use of Single use plastic
We don’t even have to tell you this by now. Single use plastic is a big no. It’s plastic you spend less than three minutes with, that ends up in the ocean for hundred of years. Single use plastic is easily avoidable (use metal, or glass alternatives, or get creative) and should be at all costs.
Watch the label!
Read the label when you buy toothpaste and cosmetic products, especially facial exfoliators and cleansers. If toothpaste contains polyethylene, it has microplastics. In exfoliants choose natural exfoliants or chemical exfoliants. Synthetically made physical exfoliants should be avoided. Microbeads found in these, are the purest forms of microplastics.
Tired of tyres!
Car tyres contain plastic. Because of friction on the road, microplastics are released directly into the air making car tyres one the biggest contributors to microplastic pollution. To reduce this, you can simply use public transport as much as possible. That was a easy one.
Glitter is litter...
Okay, what is glitter doing on this list, lol. But glitter is almost always made of PVC or PET and is very hard to clean up. Just like how it lingers on your skin or furniture for days, microplastics linger in the environment for years. Look for natural and sustainable glitters if you have to.
Think before you toss
We often toss trash in an overfilled, open bin. This causes plastic bits from our waste to escape into the air. As far as possible dispose responsibly, in covered bins, and pack your trash well. Even if you are recycling, if microplastics escape into air before they reach the recycling unit, it’s no good right?
Microplastics are proof that our waste comes back to haunt us. We are breathing them in, and eating them with food. The battle with microplastics is a tough one. It’s a big mess that’s hard to clean (and see). Many countries are banning microbeads. UN is raising awareness. In 2015 USA passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act, which prohibits rinse-off of cosmetics products that contain plastic microbeads. And these are just some of the initiatives.
Many are up to the fight. You just have to join.