What do you envision when you think of the garbage patches in our oceans? It’s easy to think of plastic bags and bottles and other debris floating on the surface. Unfortunately, much of it is microplastics––less than five millimeters long.
That is, microplastics can’t be much larger than a grain of rice. They can be much smaller.
Take microbeads, for example. They pass through filters at wastewater treatment plants. Much of the world has banned them in cosmetics and personal care products. Their use, however, continues in biomedical research and for air blasting to clean paint and rust from surfaces.
But about 98% of microplastics result from plastic objects breaking into smaller and smaller pieces.
It’s only human to make something and find out about negative consequences later. Microbeads, for example, came on the market about 50 years ago. Other plastic products had been degrading into microparticles for a long time.
What’s more, whenever we do laundry, our clothing and linens shed microscopically small particles. Cotton microparticles biodegrade. Polyester microparticles don’t. The dryer causes more shedding. The lint trap catches only part of it. The vent sends microparticles into the atmosphere, one source of microplastics in the air.
Scientists have only recognized microplastics as a problem fairly recently. Perhaps much of the general public still doesn’t know.
What problems do microplastics cause?
Plastic has become the most common type of debris in oceans and lakes. Filters in our wastewater treatment plants don’t catch anything as small as microbeads. And, of course, most microplastics enter our waterways as much larger pieces and then break down.
We now have at least a general idea of the effects of microplastics.
Plenty of fish live on plankton, and how are they to know that what looks like plankton is actually plastic? It has no nutritional value, so it’s bad for their health. They can’t digest it or excrete all of it. It stays in their bodies. Then larger fish eat the smaller ones—and all the plastic in them.
Plastic, like mercury and other pollutants, bioaccumulates. That is, part of the plastic in any creature’s diet stays in its body. It never goes away. So it passes up the food chain until it lands on our plates.
The problem of microplastics pollution isn’t limited to oceans and lakes. We breathe microplastics, especially indoors. Friction likewise breaks down plastics. So when you put on and take off synthetic clothing, sit on synthetic furniture, or walk on synthetic carpet, you release microscopic plastic fragments into the air.
Our soil has microplastics, too. You may have put some there yourself. Even after I started learning about microplastic in the ocean, I was still composting dryer lint. Until, that is, I read that the little fragments of polyester aren’t any healthier for earthworms than for fish.
So the problem isn’t merely in fish. It’s also microplastics in humans. But the biggest problem? No one yet knows the consequences.
How can we avoid microplastics?
It’s easier said than done. I looked at a few articles about how to avoid microplastics. They had similar advice, and I don’t find it satisfactory. The following is based on the consideration of one post. I will consider the points roughly from the easiest to the most problematic.
Reduce or avoid bottled water
There are plenty of other reasons to avoid bottled water. Not only does it contribute greatly to the problem of waste of single-use plastics, but it is also less strictly regulated than tap water. If you want to know what’s in your drinking water, you can learn about tap water. But bottlers don’t have to tell either you or government regulators.
I just looked at the most recent annual water quality report from my city. Apparently, cities aren’t required to measure and report microplastic particles. Tap water worldwide contains them. But one study finds that bottled water on average has 22 times more microplastics. Just one more reason to fill a reusable water bottle with filtered tap water.
Avoid products with microbeads
You used to be able to buy gritty body washes and other products. The rough feel came from microbeads in the formula. And no filter could keep them from flowing into the sea.
Microbeads have been banned from cosmetics and personal care products in the US since 2015. They are outlawed in many other countries, but not everywhere. Some imported products may have them. If you find a brand of something with microbeads, it’s easy enough to leave it alone.
Glitter is nothing but colored microplastics sold for crafts.
If you’re not involved in crafting, you have no need to buy glitter. You might find some on greeting cards and decide not to buy them.
Since I don’t do crafts, I don’t know what alternatives are available. If you do crafts, I can suggest that you not use glitter, but I recognize that some crafters might consider it a sacrifice.
Avoid plastics as much as possible
Even people dedicated to zero-plastic living can’t avoid plastics entirely. They’re everywhere. In some cases, no alternative products exist.
For example, if you give blood, your arm will be wrapped with a disposable plastic tourniquet. The blood will go into a disposable plastic vial. If you get a shot, it will come in a disposable plastic syringe.
It would be nice if the medical field would be able to come up with ways of reusing and sanitizing more equipment. Someone is probably thinking about it, but it’s probably a low priority.
And medical technology represents only one area where plastic is the norm. Try to find computer equipment or other electronics with no plastic!
What’s more, we all use plenty of plastic without thinking about it. Did you know that the fuzzy surface of tennis balls is plastic? And it sheds microplastics into the air with every stroke and bounce.
But for the most part, we can do our best to avoid plastic packaging and other single-use plastics. And recycle what we can’t avoid.
Avoid clothing and other fabric made of synthetics
Microplastics in clothing pollutes the air as well as the water.
It’s easy to tell people to buy only products with 100% natural fibers. But can everyone do it? I recall reading that worldwide demand for fabric is greater than the world’s capacity to grow natural fibers. Naturally, I can’t find it now that I’d like to cite it, but it’s something to think about.
Perhaps better advice would be to buy less clothing and keep it longer. Reduce demand for fabric. Too many consumers care more about keeping up with the latest fashions than about the environmental impact of their shopping. As a result, they dispose of about 60% of what they buy in less than a year. And disposal doesn’t primarily mean donating unwanted but still wearable clothing to thrift shops, either. Most clothing discards wind up in landfills.
Beyond clothing, we need fabric for upholstery and carpets. How practical is it for us to let the kind of fabric alone dictate our choices of what to buy?
Air-dry your clothes
Within living memory, everyone air-dried clothes. And that was when the air was dirtier. Nowadays, carrying laundry outside to hang it on a clothesline seems too inconvenient. Plus, a lot of homeowners’ associations ban outdoor clotheslines whether anyone wants to use them or not.
It is possible to air-dry clothes indoors. I bought some clothes racks, thinking I could fire my dryer.
Maybe better-designed racks would work, but my clothes took so long to dry that they felt and smelled unpleasant. I tried running two or three fans, which helped some, but it still took most of the day.
Limit your intake of shellfish
The author of the article was evidently thinking primarily of microplastics in the ocean. It’s better to consider the broader topic of microplastics in food. Shellfish absorb whatever is in the water around them, including the microplastics. But all the fish we eat have bioaccumulated microplastics, too. So we shouldn’t eat seafood at all?
Many environmentalists cast a suspicious glance at meat and poultry, too. Everyone should become vegan! Microplastics just give another reason.
But stop and think about that for a while. In seafood, we eat top-level predators that have bioaccumulated microplastics. In meat and poultry, we eat herbivores that have bioaccumulated microplastics. That’s because plants ingest microplastics. So if you want to avoid microparticles in your diet, avoid eating anything from plants, too!
That may be reason to worry, but it’s also good news. Our trees can sequester microplastics along with carbon.
We all have microplastics in our bodies. We can’t avoid getting more unless we avoid eating, drinking, and breathing. That’s no way to live!
By this time, absolute environmental good is impossible. But we can all take steps in the direction of the less bad. We can practice at least the first several recommendations in this section. That way, we can keep from, or at least minimize adding more microplastics to our water, air, and soil.
8 ways to avoid microplastics and why it’s important / Hugh, Get Green Now. November 30, 2019
Most of the indoor air we breathe is polluted with microplastic particles / Ashley Williams, AccuWeather. July 20, 2019
What are microplastics? / National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/ March 30, 2020
Microplastics. Some rights reserved by Oregon State University
High tide. Some rights reserved by Nan Fry
Bottled water. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Mountain of plastic trash. Some rights reserved by Shafiu Hussein.
Clothesline. Some rights reserved by Ben Lucier.