Microplastics, What are they and why are they bad?
What Are Microplastics?
Plastics do NOT degrade back into the earth like natural materials will eventually do. This is why it is estimated to take thousands of years to "break down" I have break down in quotes because plastic will never break down back into the earth but rather break down into smaller and smaller pieces of itself (think of a plastic bag in the desert after a summer) these itty bitty pieces are called micro plastics.
How does Plastic "Break Down"?
The conditions in order for plastic to break down depends on two factors:
1) UV light (from the sun)
2) Physical Weathering ( water, friction, physical objects etc...)
These conditions along with the TYPE of plastic determines how quickly it will break down into micro plastics. These usually happen fastest in the ocean or other water like conations.
photo from microplastics.com
Environmental Dangers of Microplastics
Large plastic can cause physical harm to marine life such as fishing nets, tangling seals, birds, whales, dolphins and other mammals that can result in serious injury and most often death. However one of the bigger issues is not the physical injury but the ingestion of smaller pieces of plastic.
As the plastic "breaks down" into smaller and smaller pieces, these micro plastics look like food to aquatic life. When microplastics are mistaken for food they provide no nutrients to the animal, so they keep eating, and eating, and eating...until they either starve to death from lack of nutritious food or most commonly die from a blockage in their digestion.
Some of these microplastics are SO small that they become embedded into the animal's tissue. When that animal is eaten by another, larger animal they that plastic works its way up the food chain.
Animals ingesting microplastic is not the only danger- plastic carries a slew of toxic chemicals that break down and pollute our waterways.
Effects on Animals and Human Health
For an in-depth guide off all of the chemical make ups of plastic check out my blog post title Health and Plastic
In short, the chemicals leached by plastic when exposed to heat (or sun UV rays) absorbs into humans and animals.
The major effect of plastic found in humans is that it impacts our endocrine system and glans.
List of diseases caused by plastic ( BPA being one of the most famous):
- Thyroid cancer
- Hypo-and hypertension
- Addison’s disease
- Cushing’s syndrome
- low testosterone
- reproductive malformations
- developmental disorders
- pulmonary system effects including asthma and allergies
- direct toxicity
Effects of plastic on humans and animals are still being studied, here is a study that found that high exposure of plastic chemicals lead to developmental and reproductive effects in mammals and aquatic species. You can read the full study here
How does microplastic get into our environment in the first place?
Simply put: from litter.
Trash from the landfill, in-between transportation, people leaving waste, your garbage can blowing over...all of these and many more result in plastic being blown by wind and other weather patterns until they finally land in a body of water, this can be local, or it can be blown mile and miles away until it reaches the ocean.
Everything is connected, what happens in the desert or other landlocked communities- eventually makes its way into our oceans
But litter is not the only way microplastic make there way into our environment...here are a few other common ways:
- Products with “exfoliating” microbeads” aka plastic, they wash down the sink though water filtration and right into our water supply
- Flushing contact lenses
- Washing synthetic clothing such as (polyester, nylon, etc…)
Steps You Can Take
All this information can be a real shock and seem like such a large problem that no one person can solve.
However, by one person making small simple changes and by educating yourself and passing along this information to others, has a massive rippling impact around the world. Here seven steps to combat microplastics in your home and community.
Although the import or manufacture of toiletries with microbeads was banned in January 2018, be mindful of any existing products. You can click here for a list of products that contain the beads, mostly it was found in "exfoliating" skin care products and some toothpastes. That's right...they thought it was a good idea to put little pieces of plastic...in your mouth.
If you MUST use the enemy of many, look into buying eco-friendly glitter that is made from biodegradable cellulose film. This means that it will dissolve and leave no harm.
Lastly, avoid what's creating the problem in the first place. Don't support the corporations that take no responsibility for there packaging. Avoid (when possible) single use items.
To understand WHY it is important to lessen your impact check out my blog post titles Why go Zero-Waste? New to all this? Check out my blog explaining What is Zero-Waste? You can also check out our zero-waste gear.
You by no means NEED any of these products- however if you have the means they can be amazing tools and make it more convenient. Here is recommended list to lessen your impact
Steps Other Are Taking
I wanted to leave off on a positive note of what other organizations are doing about this very serious problem that will (and already is) affecting everyone everywhere.
- The Ocean Cleanup Project recently developed a method to remove 70,000 metric tons of plastic from the sea within ten years.
- Collaborations between nonprofits and clothing manufacturers to create clothing and footwear made entirely out of plastic debris.
- Improving wastewater management facilities to improve their ability to prevent smaller plastic debris from reaching the water.