Microplastics are defined as any plastic less than five millimeters (about the size of a grain of rice) and we divide these into two types. The first, primary microplastics is plastic engineered to be small. And there are many reasons why we do this: medical, personal, industrial. There are microplastics in cosmetics such as synthetic fibers in mascara. Polystyrene beads are used in many applications like stuffing and flotation; nurdles, a funny name for plastic resin pellets, can be used to make just about anything, and even things like glitter are considered primary microplastics. Then we have our secondary microplastics, which are plastics created from the breakdown of large materials: fragments from a plastic bottle, films from a plastic bag, fibers from netting, from rope, and even from our synthetic clothing.
As scientists have looked across habitats and environments, we found that microplastics are everywhere: in different habitats – from freshwater to the ocean, from deep sea to the Arctic - and in animals – from the bottom of the food chain and zooplankton and fish, all the way to the top, to marine mammals and even in ourselves. Microplastics are everywhere, and as animals eat those plastics, it can have negative effects on them. It can have physical impacts, blockages, abrasions, or chemical impacts, either from the chemicals in the plastics leaching out or chemicals in the environment and contaminants sticking to the plastic themselves. And all of this can create negative health effects, including decreases in growth and reproduction.
The study of microplastics is relatively a new one, and our knowledge of the impacts of microplastics is limited, especially at the smaller sizes. And as we zoom down to those smaller sizes, right down to the level that’s invisible to the naked eye, about 100 microns or the thickness of the sheet of paper, we find microplastics there, too. They are in the water that we drink, in the air that we breathe, and we’re only just learning about microplastics in food. They’ve been found in shellfish, in clams and in oysters. Other studies also show them present in chicken, honey, and salt. We’re still figuring out where these fibers come from, but synthetic clothing represents a significant potential source. Every year, 70 million tons of fibers are used in the clothing industry. Out of that 70 million, 60 percent are synthetic. And that’s evident when you go shopping if you look at your labels.
Now, as we wash our clothes, fibers are released, and a recent study took six-kilogram loads of laundry – polyester cotton, polyester, and acrylic – and washed them. And they generated anywhere from 140,000 fibers for the poly-cotton mix to a whopping 700,000 fibers for acrylic, per load – fibers that go into our sewage system, into our waterways, into the ocean, into our ecosystems, and into our food.
Our microplastics are everywhere, but there is something that we can do about it almost everywhere we go, and it starts with the good old three R’s from the 70s that we’re familiar with: reduce, reuse, recycle. But we need to update these to add three new R’s, starting with the first one: refuse. Refuse single use plastic, refuse any plastic you don’t need, refuse straws, refuse coffee cups, think critically about what you need. If you can’t refuse it, reduce it. Think carefully about the plastic that you need, find natural alternatives where you can. There are many things that we can do to reduce fiber pollution. For example, use a filter on your washing machine to catch the fibers before they go into the water. If you can’t reduce it, reuse it. Choose products that are built to last rather than those with planned obsolescence. Try to get most life out of your plastic items that you can, and if you can’t reuse it, of course, recycle it. If your community doesn’t have a facility to deal with these types of items, then create the demand and the need for it, it’s worth your time. The second new R: rethink. We live in a society that doesn’t place a high value on second-hand goods and we need to change that. We need to focus on services rather than replacement, and that is going to require the final new R, and perhaps the most challenging, which is to redesign. On a broader scale, we need to change our thinking from the linear model of make, take and dispose to one that’s more circular in nature, to one in which we think about the end life of a product right at its beginning. This consumption model generates much more waste than it would in a circular economy, one which focuses on services, on repurposing, on refurbishing, rather than replacing, one in which we might have let’s say one phone or one computer that gets updated with latest technology as it becomes available. Imagine a system in which you don’t own your clothes, but borrow them or you rent them from the companies that you like, you wear them until you want something new, you send them back, they get repurposed into newer styles you want to wear. Let’s slow down fast fashion and focus on quality rather than quantity. All of these things, with a change in our linear way of thinking, are within the realm of possibility. Let’s think outside the bottle and create room for innovation.
Plastic is a valuable product, we are reliant on it, and a future without it is completely unrealistic. But we can’t and we shouldn’t continue to use it and produce it on the increasing trajectory that we are currently on. Plastic is resilient, it lasts a long time, and while that is a problem in one respect, it represents an opportunity in so many others.
Compiled by SZ