The most durable plastics, such as bottles, can take over 450 years to biodegrade. Also, there are different types of plastics that will break down differently in our environment. And there is so much more than just the plastic we can see building up. Once plastics leave our hands, they break down into smaller particles known as microplastics. This kind of plastic is less than 5mm, which means you won’t be able to see them easily when mixed with natural sand and sediment.
Smaller than a sesame seed, microplastics can easily be forgotten or overlooked. Because of this, they have unknowingly made their way into almost every aspect of our daily lives. There is still little that we know about their effects on our environment. But what we do know might surprise you.
1. Larger plastic in our oceans become microplastics
Each year, humans pollute our water systems with about eight tonnes of plastic. This is due to a lack of consistent recycling and education in many countries. This plastic eventually makes its way to our oceans. While some of the plastic that washes up on our beaches and can be picked up and sorted, other pieces will join one of the five great garbage patches, large islands of plastic debris floating in our oceans. Other pieces will become microplastic in our oceans.
The ocean environment and UV rays from the sun will break down large pieces of plastic into microplastics. However, due to their small size, it is easier for them to mingle with ocean life. Fish will ingest them by accident while feeding, they are even small enough to be eaten by plankton. Being at the bottom of the food chain, other fish will often eat this plastic too. If not eaten, the plastic will pass through the plankton’s digestive system and sink to the bottom of our oceans.
2. Microplastics are used in everyday products
There are many everyday products that we don’t realize contain microplastics. Certain facial exfoliants and tubes of toothpaste include microbeads that have been made of plastic since the 1950s. Plastic is a cheaper alternative to using naturally occurring exfoliants. These plastic pollutants are so small you may not realize they are there but the particles get washed into the water system every time we use them.
Synthetic clothing and fleece are also a major source of microplastics. The fibres used to create these materials are made to be more durable and last longer. The downside is that we create a huge number of plastic pollutants in the process. The fabrics will release 1,900 synthetic fibres each time we wash them. Synthetic fabrics are being used more and more to make clothing at a cheaper cost – but at what price? Scientists have found that these fibres make-up 85% of microplastic in our oceans.
3. Microplastic in our oceans is everywhere
Studies around the world have found microplastics in every corner of our oceans. Plastic has been found even in the Mariana Trench, the deepest natural trench in the world. Some of the plastic found is still large, like plastic bags, but the majority are small, unseen particles. A recent study was conducted to find the “missing” plastic in our oceans. The amount of plastic on the surface accounted for only a fraction of all the plastic pollutants. Scientists discovered that even larger quantities of microplastics can be found at the bottom of our oceans.
Scientists also found plastic pollutants present in arctic sea ice. A survey of arctic ice concluded microplastics have been accumulating throughout the years, as we create more plastics, it is being found at much higher quantities. Some samples found over 12,000 microplastic particles per litre of sea ice. This sea ice can melt and rejoin the food chain.
4. Drinking water isn’t safe from microplastics
Besides our oceans, microplastics can be found in every form of water we have, including tap water. Recent studies found that 83% of metropolitan tap water contained forms of plastic pollutants. Unfortunately, these particles are not filtered out in many water processing systems. They are then incorporated into anything we use – from brushing our teeth to washing our vegetables.
Bottled water is also not safe from the reach of plastics. Eleven of the world’s largest bottled water brands were tested for microplastics. The results showed that a staggering 93% of the bottled water contained microplastics. Currently, there are no regulations on the amount of microplastic in bottled water, which means companies are not held accountable for the number of microplastics we may be drinking.
5. Microplastics have been found in humans
A pilot study in 2018 found for the first time that microplastics are also in humans’ digestive tracts. Until this study, we didn’t have any proof that these particles were having a direct impact on us. There is still a lot that we don’t know the effect and impact plastics can have on our health.
Being surrounded by these particles, it is also unclear how we are mainly ingesting them. Microplastic could be coming from our local environment, being airborne and falling into our food. Or they could come from our drinking water, food or packaging, especially bottled water. More studies must be done before we can make any solid conclusions.
Not being able to see these microplastics makes it difficult to understand that we are literally surrounded by plastic. It takes a closer look to see how much is in our lives. The packaging we use, the plastic bags used to package our shopping, and even in the clothes we wear, all add up. It is easy to see there is an overabundance of plastic in our lives.
We can make changes to reduce plastic in our environments. It is a change that needs to happen not just for ourselves but for the other creatures that share our planet and our future. By taking a few extra steps, making better choices and being more aware of our environment, less plastic will go in our oceans.
- Whenever possible, bring your own water bottle, coffee cup, and bags with you when you are shopping.
- Pay attention to the fabrics you are wearing, such as synthetics and fleece. Check the tags and look for friendly clothing options.
- Opt for glass products (especially water bottles) or reuse plastic products for as long as they will last.
- If you must use single-use plastic, make sure you dispose of it properly.
Educating others about these issues is also extremely important. If people are not aware of microplastic in our oceans, they will not be able to make a change for a better future.
Start making a difference today to humanify the future.