The Invasion of Microplastics

Microplastics and microbeads are small particles of plastic. There simply are little pieces of plastic. They are man-made in their ‘micro’ form or are a product of the breakdown of larger plastics. Small or large, they are harmful to the environment. They hurt wildlife and sneak into our water systems affecting the food chain through consumption. Tons of these microplastics can be found throughout bodies of water. Fortunately, we are not defenseless and we can act to prevent their danger.

Microplastics are little tiny particles of plastic. Microplastics are particles of plastic less than five millimeters (.2 inches) in diameter. Many microplastics come from the breakdown of larger plastics such as bottles, bags, cups, toys. Another kind of small plastics is called microbeads. Microbeads have about the same diameter than microplastics, but instead of being the result of the breakdown of other plastics, they are systematically put in products including facial scrubs, glitter and toothpaste whiteners.

Why Should We Care?

Bottom line: Microplastics are polluting our waters.

This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. For decades the world has struggled with proper disposal of plastic products. The lack of good plastic treatment methods leaves our waterways riddled with a myriad of plastic derivatives: bottles, bags, cups, toothbrushes, you name it… Although many people take steps toward getting rid of larger items, the issue lies when those items are disposed of improperly. Micheal Rennie from the International Institute for Sustainable Development or (IISD) tells us that almost 75% of microplastics found in the ocean are from larger material, such as bottles and bags. There is an estimated amount of 270,000 tons of microplastics floating at surface level. The scale of concentration only gets larger from there.

Microplastic pollution in aquatic environments and impacts on food chains | Ref: Wu WM, Yang J, Criddle CS. Microplastics pollution and reduction strategies (2017) DOI: 10.1007/s11783-017-0897-7 | Available via license: CC BY 4.0 | Content may be subject to copyright.

Where I currently live, the city of Boston is no stranger to microplastics. In fact, Boston Harbor is considered to be one of the more concentrated areas regarding microplastics in its waters. It’s so concentrated that, compared to the ocean, it has been considered to be used as a baseline for scientists to study and test new equipment on how to find microplastics. Many of the plastics found in Boston Harbor are actually considered microbeads. These beads can be found in things such as soaps, body wash, scrubs, and even toothpaste. Massachusetts Sierra Club tells us that “treatment plants are often directly empty into the ocean. These microplastics permanently displace organisms like plankton, because they don’t biodegrade”. Microbeads contain toxic substances such as DDT, polyaromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls. These toxic chemicals are then consumed by the smaller organisms which in turn affects the whole food chain. Just think about it: ocean animals that we eat have plastic in them whether due directly from their own consumption of microbeads or as a byproduct of the plankton eating microbeads. Although most of these microbeads, specifically “rinse-off” microbeads, have been outlawed by the Microbead-Free-Waters Act 2015, many still float at the surface of Boston Harbor. There is even a loophole in the Act which allows products such as glitter to be sold which are not considered “rinse-off” microbeads. 

What Can We Do To Help?

Unfortunately, when it comes to microplastics that already exist in our water, there is almost no way of getting rid of them. That is, at this time, we don’t have the proper tools to remove efficiently most microplastics stuck in our environment. This might seem a little discouraging, and although there is no formal way to remove microplastics, there are several things that you can do to prevent more from entering the environment.

▹ The IISD suggests making a lifestyle change, such as avoiding purchasing products with excessive packaging. By not buying heavily-packaged products we can limit the amount of plastic a single person releases into the environment once they are discarded.

Another suggestion is using glass and metal over plastic containers. This includes avoiding Tupperware containers. Although considered harmless at first, these items tend to break down over time, due to constant use and wash, leaving tiny particles to find their way into the water system.

When it comes to clothes, prefer wearing wool over synthetic garments. Often overlooked is the impact of what we wear and how we wash our clothes. Laundry is a big contributor to microplastics pollution in wastewater. Most of our clothes are made of synthetic fibers that are types of plastic. This includes polyethylene, acrylic, nylon and other and polyethylene. When washed, they shed tiny microfibers that drain into wastewater. Switch to natural products which are considered to be much better for our water. 

If you want to get a little extra credit, go out and help clean up plastic from shorelines or lakes. Although removing large plastic won’t impact the damage already done by its microplastic derivatives, removing them will prevent any future damage from being done.

Finally, always Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.

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April 17th, 2020 | by  Stephanie Schofield 

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