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Microplastic Mitigation

Updated: Feb 11


You may hear the term microplastics and think to yourself, “Well, aren’t those are just…small plastics?” Yes, they are. Microplastics can be defined as minuscule pieces of plastic less than 5 mm in diameter. However, you should never judge something by its size. Although tiny, they can have significant effects on ecosystems, wildlife, and human health.


You may not be able to see them, but microplastics are everywhere. As a matter of fact, there is a decent chance you have breathed in a small amount of microplastics in the time its taken you to read this far. Microplastics can invade the systems of humans and animals through inhalation, food consumption, and even physical contact.


 

Public Ignorance


You may be wondering, “Why haven’t I heard about microplastics until now?” The truth is, the magnitude of the microplastic issue has caught many people by surprise. Plastic products have seamlessly woven themselves into our society and culture, but in the grand scheme of things, plastics are a relatively recent technological advancement.


Initially, plastic debris appears as large items, gradually breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces over time. The decomposition process is slow; plastic waste can take anywhere from 20 to 500 years to degrade. As a result, the presence of microplastics has only recently come to our attention. It’s crucial to note that plastic never truly decomposes. Every piece of plastic manufactured will always remain in the world, mostly at a microscopic level.


As new information comes to light about microplastics, many research initiatives have sprung up across the world to further explore them and their potentially toxic effects on our environment. For example, microbeads, uniform polymer particles that range from 0.5–500 microns in diameter, were added as exfoliants to health and beauty products starting in 1977. By 2012, a significant portion of these products contained microbeads and the public was completely unaware of the toxins they were massaging into their skin in the shower each night. Only in 2015, more than 40 years after the development of microbeads, were they banned from cosmetic and personal care products.


Contributors to Microplastic Production

Although microbeads were banned in 2015, microplastic production did not end. In fact, microplastic concentrations have increased exponentially as of late with the expansion of production of plastic-based commodities.


Synthetic Textiles


Synthetic textiles are the primary source of microplastics in our oceans, accounting for a staggering 35% of the total volume of microplastics. 50% of materials used to make textiles, including polyester, nylon, and acrylicare, are plastic-based.


Why not just use other materials for textile production? The widespread use of polyester fabrics stems from their cost-effectiveness and versatility, allowing manufacturers to create a diverse array of products without having to purchase different types of material.


While this may benefit textile-manufacturing companies, using plastic-based materials in clothing production allows microplastics to escape into the environment. Washing synthetic textiles triggers the release of microplastics into wash water as the fibers rub against each other. When this water is disposed of, it makes its way into freshwater and saltwater systems, eventually reaching our food and water supplies.


Many firms don’t have proper microplastic filtration systems in place because they are too minuscule to be filtered out of solution using conventional filtration methods. More refined technology is needed for this process to be successful.


Plastic Containers


Plastic packaging accounts for 42% of all microplastics produced. Unfortunately, firms across the world have plasticized almost all consumer goods. Plastic food containers, packaging, bottles, disposable cups, and even plastic-coated metal has released microplastics directly into our food supply. By storing, preparing, and consuming food in plastic containers, people are directly ingesting toxic microplastics.


The popularity of microwavable meals and meal kits, glorified for their convenience and ease of preparation, has surged in recent years. However, this convenience comes at a hidden cost. These meals, typically packaged in single-use plastic containers, have long microwave times, often exceeding five minutes for a seemingly “quick” meal. With each passing second in the microwave, more microplastics leach into your meal.


While these products are convenient, the long-term consequences of microplastic ingestion may not be worth the 30 minutes you saved by microwaving something instead of cooking a meal.


Vehicle Tires


Surprisingly, vehicle tires are the second-largest contributors to microplastics in oceans, accounting for 28% of total microplastic volume. Traditionally, tires were crafted by wrapping leather around wood. However, modern tire manufacturing has shifted toward using synthetic rubbers and plastic polymers to encase metal tire frames, contributing to the production of microplastics. This approach was not nearly as harmful to the environment as our current method of tire production is.


While driving, tires undergo continuous wear and tear from heat and friction generated by contact with the road’s surface. Tire dust and residue, composed of small plastic and rubber particles, do not undergo decomposition. Instead, these particles are dispersed by wind and rain, eventually finding their way into tributaries, lakes, and ultimately, oceans.


Alarmingly, recent studies have revealed that Americans are the leading contributors to tire wear per capita, collectively generating an estimated 1.8 million tons of microplastics annually.


Personal Care Products


Despite the US government’s ban on the manufacture and sale of personal care products containing microbeads, the allure of these tiny plastic particles remains strong for manufacturers worldwide. Microbeads serve various purposes in personal care items, acting as exfoliants, delivering active ingredients, and controlling product viscosity.


Although the ban was implemented in the US, other countries continue to produce and distribute these products on a global scale. Shockingly, some personal care products now contain up to 10% of their weight in plastics, with certain items containing several thousand microbeads per gram.


The real issue with these microbeads lies in their disposal after use. Despite our confidence in water filtration systems, they remain incapable of effectively filtering out these minuscule particles. As a result, microbeads easily bypass filtration systems and infiltrate our waterways.


Issues with Microplastics


Microplastics have raised concerns among doctors and scientists alike because of their harmful effects on humans and animals. Research indicates that exposure to microplastics can trigger a range of toxic effects, including oxidative stress, metabolic disorders, immune responses, neurotoxicity, and reproductive and developmental toxicity. However, our understanding of the full extent of these risks is hindered by limitations in existing research methods.


Research has shown that various factors influence the toxicity of microplastics such as their size, shape, surface charge, and weathering process. Interestingly, studies suggest that randomly shaped fragments may be more harmful than spherical microplastics. Moreover, microplastics often contain polymers and additives which can be released into the environment via weathering and erosion, exacerbating toxicity.


Microplastics possess a high surface energy due to their small size, allowing them to adsorb other pollutants including heavy metals and hydrophobic organic chemicals (HOCs). This can enhance toxicity and pose significant risks to both human health and the environment. Animal experiments have confirmed that microplastics can lead to liver and intestinal dysfunction, as well as induce immune responses in the body.


It was previously believed that after entering the human body, microplastics are excreted via the gastrointestinal tract. But, recent studies have detected microplastics in human blood. Microplastics don’t go through your digestive system, but rather infiltrate the circulatory system, distributing these toxic chemicals throughout the body. The colon and liver have the highest content of microplastics, but they have also been found in the spleen, lungs, feces, placenta, and breastmilk of humans.


Limitations


Current methods of analyzing microplastics are extremely limited because they can only detect them at the micron level. However, microplastics can range in size from a picometer to 5 millimeters. This inability to detect extremely small microplastics using current technology prevents us from fully understanding how these particles impact global ecosystems. Although we can study the impact of microplastics on our Earth, nanoplastics may be wreaking havoc on our environment without us knowing it.


Additionally, there is a lack of effective methods for microplastic removal. Most plastics are left to degrade over time and weathering and erosion processes spread these particles far and wide, reinforcing their presence almost everywhere. Microplastics are so incredibly small that attempting to remove them from water is extremely expensive and usually inefficient.


Moreover, the absence of advanced dynamic tracing techniques highlights the pressing need for the development of precise methods for microplastic identification, quantification, and tracking. Nanoplastics are largely unexplored due to the limitations of existing research methods. As our understanding of microplastics continues to evolve, addressing these methodological gaps becomes increasingly important in comprehensive risk assessment and the development of mitigation strategies.


How Can You Help?


Drink Filtered Tap Water

In a study examining microplastics in bottled water, researchers discovered microplastic particles in 93% of the samples tested. This finding suggests that while enjoying a refreshing drink you may inadvertently consume microscopic plastic particles which can cause adverse health effects.


Fortunately, you can take steps to minimize your exposure to microplastics in drinking water by investing in tap water filters. Installing a microplastic filter in your home can significantly reduce the amount of microplastics ingested through water consumption.


Store Food in Metal or Glass Containers

When your food comes into contact with plastic for an extended period, it’s more likely to absorb chemicals from the plastic. Moreover, microwaving food in plastic causes plastic to break down faster, leading to contamination of your food with microplastics. Consider using glass or ceramic containers to store you food in order to avoid the release of microplastics into your food during reheating.


Be Aware of Synthetic Fibers

Synthetic fibers shed microplastics every time they are washed, contributing to microplastic pollution. To minimize the release of these microplastics, it is advised to wait until you have a full load of laundry before running your washing machine. Additionally, consider purchasing a filter attachment for your washing machine’s hose or a microplastic-catching ball to prevent water contamination.


Use Plastic-Free Cosmetics & Personal Products

Although microbeads were banned in 2015, they are still present in many cosmetic, toothpaste, and skincare products. If you notice tiny beads inside any of your products, they are most likely microbeads and you should avoid using them. Look for products that do not contain plastics such as polyethylene, polypropylene, nylon, polymethyl methacrylate, and acrylates copolymer next time you go shopping!


 

Recap

The pervasive presence of microplastics in our environment highlights the urgent need for action at individual, state, and federal levels. Microplastics released from synthetic textiles, plastic containers, vehicle tires, and personal care products, have infiltrated ecosystems around the world and threatened the health of humans and aquatic organisms.


While bans on some of these items are steps in the right direction, we need to do more to address this complex, widespread issue. Adopting practices such as drinking filtered tap water, using metal or glass containers for food storage, and choosing natural fibers for clothing can help mitigate microplastic pollution.


Help us work toward a clean, microplastic-free future by taking action today. It is imperative that we act now to protect our planet from the impacts of microplastics and pave the way for a more sustainable world. Sign our Microplastic Pollution Petition on our website to get more involved. Stay updated and active by following the Environmental Defense Initiative on Medium and our social media platforms!







Author: Maggie Yang


Editor: Emma Mazzotta


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