Explainer: Microplastics

Willow Beck
Quinn Emmett
September 7, 2022
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What are microplastics?

When you think of plastic pollution, perhaps an image of a plastic bag stuck in the unreachable branches of the tree outside your office window is the first thing that comes to mind. Or maybe you think about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as a floating island consisting of fishing gear and plastic bottles. But really, most of the plastic in The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is swirling around in a vortex between two patches, made up primarily of tiny pieces of plastic called microplastics (any plastic smaller than 5 millimeters in length).

Where do microplastics come from?

Microplastics can come from many sources:

  • wearing down of car tires
  • washing synthetic clothes
  • discarded fishing equipment
  • spilled nurdles (which sound fun but are just small production pellets of plastic ready to be made into almost anything you can think of)

Are microplastics harmful?

Regardless of where microplastics originate, they mostly end up in the ocean. Microplastics have been found in food, drinking water, children, and human blood.

Since plastic was invented, we have produced what is medically known as a shit-ton (or an estimated 8300 million metric tons). Most of this (79%) is in landfills or the environment. Aquatic life often mistakes microplastics for food, leading to malnutrition and starvation. We have found more than 700 species affected by plastics, including all seven sea turtle species and a good chunk of marine mammals and sea birds.

Microplastics effects on humans

TLDR (but please do, you're already here): We aren't sure yet.

The effects on humans have not been thoroughly researched. Nano-plastics (microplastics but smaller) are particularly worrying because they are small enough to enter our cells. While we know microplastics are in our blood, science has not yet proven they are doing any harm. This is hard to determine because plastics are made of thousands of chemicals, and proving causation is difficult in human trials.

recent analysis has found more than 10,000 unique chemicals used in plastics, 2400 of which are of potential concern, many of which are not adequately regulated. Chemical additives often found in plastic can leach into the water. But it is challenging to sort out which of the thousands of chemical combinations are dangerous or to determine the level and length of exposure that could cause harm.

Laboratory tests have shown microplastics can cause damage to human cells, but large trials on people that establish a connection between microplastic exposure and human health have not been conducted yet.

Microplastics in lungs

Breathing in plastic fibers floating in the air around us (from fibers shed from clothes, carpets, and furniture) is also a health risk. A study on lung diseases has identified particles made of plastics known to be toxic to humans, causing lung irritation, dizziness, asthma, and cancer.

What’s being done about microplastics?

Even if the results about the impacts of microplastics on our health are inconclusive, plastic pollution is suffocating our oceans...and our track record of "fuck around and find out" generally hasn't been working out. And plastics are made from fossil fuels, so their production results in the continued extraction and release of greenhouse gases.

Governments have started to take some action. Microbeads, a type of microplastic found in health and beauty products, were banned in the US in 2015. The Break-Free From Plastic Act of 2021 would reduce the amount of plastic pollution produced and is sitting in the Senate. The EU is funding research on the impact of microplastics on fetuses, babies, and the immune system.

But how do we deal with the mountains of microplastics already in the environment? An exciting preliminary study in Hong Kong used sticky bacteria to capture microplastics in the water and form a recyclable by-product. It remains to be seen if the research will be scalable - all the more reason for further funding in this area.

How to avoid microplastics

On a personal level, you can reduce the amount of microplastics you are producing by:

  • Reducing consumption, and reusing what you can (like eating your poutine with a reusable fork instead of a plastic one)
  • Buying clothes made from sustainable natural fibers (like organic cotton or hemp)
  • Guppyfriend is a washing bag that prevents microplastic pollution caused by washing synthetic clothes
  • Learn more about circular economies with Reloop
  • Volunteer at a beach clean-up with your local Surfrider Foundation chapter
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