How To Avoid Microplastics: Easy Changes You Can Make
We all know about cigarette butts, styrofoam containers, and plastic bags.
But, there’s also the hidden and growing danger of the breakdown of these plastics into smaller pieces.
Microplastics are now a part of our entire food web from plants to animals, so how much of a danger is this and how do we avoid them?
Knowing where they come is the first step if you want to avoid them, so we’ll be diving into the most common sources of microplastics.
First of all, what are microplastics?
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are commonly defined as any plastic particles less than 5mm in size – basically smaller than a grain of rice.
The largest microplastics are small enough to swallow, and the smallest of them are so tiny they can be inhaled.
Recent definitions distinguish between microplastics and nanoplastics, but for simplicity’s sake we can just use the umbrella term microplastics for anything smaller than 5mm.
The vast majority of our plastic waste ends up degrading in landfills or elsewhere in the environment (like in the ocean). Since very few things can break plastic down, these tiny particles make their way into our atmospheric and oceanic currents, our soils, and our breathable air.
Particles of plastic get smaller and smaller over time as they’re moved around, and the end result is a pollutant that we simply aren’t able to deal with yet.
Microplastics are found in things we eat or drink everyday too, from seafood to table salt and even our world’s cleanest water.
There’s even been confirmation of the presence of microplastics in 90% of popular bottled water brands. Nestlé Pure Life had concentrations of up to 10,000 microplastic particles per liter!
Why should you avoid microplastics?
While microplastics are worrying from a human and wildlife health perspective, there’s simply not enough data available to understand the full gravity of the situation yet – which isn’t very reassuring.
Here’s what we do know:
- Microplastic fibers are bio-persistent, meaning they remain in the tissue rather than being broken down or expelled
- Microplastics have been found in the placenta of pregnant women and appear to be able to cross the placenta into the blood of the fetus
- Airborne microplastic particles can damage lung tissues, potentially leading to cancer, asthma attacks, and reduced lung capacity
- Many of the plastics in our environment are able to release endocrine disrupting chemicals which might be blocking the natural function of hormones
- BPA used in plastic is associated with prostate cancer, and BPA has been found in more than 90% of Americans tested (warning: animal testing images)
- Phthalates, used to make plastic more flexible and stronger, are associated with reproductive system dysfunction
- 99% of pregnant women tested were found to have perfluorocarbons (PFCs) in their blood from things like non-stick cookware, which are also associated with low fertility
So, what we know so far is the fact that microplastics are in our lungs, our blood, and those of our unborn children, and there’s mounting evidence of their health consequences.
They’re drawn up into our food supply through the soils, and they’re carried worldwide on ocean and air currents before ending up in every living organism; and another concerning aspect to all of this is that the concentration of microplastics in ocean surface water has also been steadily rising for decades.
And it gets worse!
Some research suggests we may be consuming the equivalent of a credit card in microplastic each week. And this comes from a variety of regular, unavoidable daily activities – it’s not limited to people who work in the plastics industry.
Microplastics can both absorb toxins and leach them into our water, our food, and our bodies; so it seems like plastics are coming at us from all angles, but there might be some ways to reduce your exposure.
Let’s go over the best ways you can avoid them (and check below this list to find out about where these particles actually come from):
How can you avoid microplastics?
The truth is, there’s no total escape from microplastics.
Microplastics are a problem that will be with us for a while (or forever), so there’s a limit to how much we can personally reduce our exposure when they’re in everything we eat and drink.
With that being said, here are some simple changes you can make to avoid microplastics:
Changes to make at home
Based on the list of microplastic sources above, it’s clear that avoiding microplastic exposure is easiest if you reduce your plastic use.
In general, reducing the amount of plastic you own is one of the better ways to directly avoid microplastic particles (obviously).
That’s easier said than done – but it’s something you can chip away at slowly over time; you don’t have to go and toss every bit of plastic you own in the trash.
One study in Australia found that nearly 40% of airborne dust particles inside the home were plastic, which makes cleaning up your indoor environments the best place to start.
Change your skincare routine. Support plastic-free, sustainable skincare brands to avoid exposing yourself to microplastics and other harmful skincare ingredients.
Keep your air clean. Vacuum regularly and you can even consider using air filters or humidifiers in dry environments to reduce the amount of airborne dust.
Replace your synthetic fibers. Nylon and other synthetic fabric blends in your wardrobe can be replaced with things like sustainable cotton, linen, or hemp fabric; and you also may want to consider getting rid of your synthetic carpets, rugs, and sheets as well.
Change the way you do laundry. Air drying your clothes and washing natural fabrics creates far less microfiber waste and dust compared to using a dryer.
Changes to make in your diet
Figuring out how to avoid eating microplastics is also an important part of reducing your exposure, especially when it comes to animal products.
The good news is, making a few minor changes can have a huge impact.
Don’t heat your plastic. Even “microwave-safe” plastic is likely a hazard, and on that note, stop cooking in non-stick pots and pans that are coated in things like Teflon.
Reduce or eliminate animal products. If you’ve been wanting to learn how to go vegan, this is a good chance! Consider how many animal products you eat, as plastics are in the water supply and food of farm animals – allowing them to accumulate in meat and dairy products. And aside from microplastics, eating meat is bad for the environment in a variety of other ways, so it’s a win-win for you and the planet.
Buy reusable containers. Reusable containers and bags for storing food and shopping will reduce the amount of single-use plastic you bring into the house.
Filter your water. Water can be filtered to remove 99% of nanoplastics, but for the average person carbon filters and reverse-osmosis filters can be used to good effect (but come at a cost).
Grow your own food. When possible, it’s better to grow what you eat as you can more easily control how the whole process goes down; and it’s really not too difficult to learn how to start a garden or a backyard composting bin. In doing so, you’ll have the opportunity to decide what not to compost within your own food system in terms of microplastics!
Don’t obsess over things you can’t change
While you can reduce your microplastic exposure, as long as you’re drinking water and going outside (or staying inside), you’re going to be affected.
It’s important to keep a realistic perspective about all of this, as you simply can’t stop inhaling or ingesting every bit of microplastic you come across. Afterall, these are microscopic particles we’re talking about here, and at this point they’re present in every living organism and ecosystem.
Remember that it’s not about complete protection – it’s about small changes you can make that improve your life and the lives of those around you.
Get involved and spread the word
On that note, avoiding microplastic pollution in the future – as plastic production ramps up further – will be impossible without a global shift in consumer habits.
Pollution of all kinds is only avoidable with local action and group action, and this means educating yourself and others on our current predicament as well as the risks and solutions we have available.
Collectively making small changes will make a difference.
But supporting initiatives already doing great work in the fight against plastic will help push for more impactful change. If you want to learn more and find some useful starting points, check out:
If you’re wondering where all of these particles actually come from, that’s what we’re going to be covering next.
Where do microplastics come from?
Plastic is in almost everything we own.
It’s in our clothes, our furniture, our cosmetics, and our electronics. While many of these plastics break down to form microplastics over time, some even begin life that way.
Until very recently, lots of brands who make exfoliating scrubs in Europe and the US were packed with plastic microbeads, an issue that’s been the driver of new plastic regulations in some countries.
Cosmetic formulas still commonly contain plastics, petrochemicals, and other skincare ingredients you should avoid; but the ban on exfoliating beads is a step in the right direction, even if it’s still far from universal.
Meanwhile, there are still plenty of other sources to worry about. As far back as 2017, the IUCN listed a handful of major microplastic sources:
Clothing & Textiles
The largest single contributor to microplastics seems to be the use of synthetic textiles like polyester and nylon, which release tiny plastic fibers during wash and wear.
Fibers released float around in the air and ultimately end up in our drains, or we directly inhale them as they collect in our homes and places of work.
What do I mean by clothing and textiles, exactly?
Pretty much everything you own could possibly contain blends of synthetic plastic fibers. Your socks and shoes, your favorite jacket, even your bedsheets and bathmats could all be made from plastic!
It’s estimated that a single washing machine load can release up to 700,000 fibers into the environment – more than any other single source.
The next-biggest contributor was found to be car tires. Over a quarter of the microplastics identified came from tires, and are produced as they wear down on the road, gradually breaking apart.
All of the tread that a tire loses over its lifetime is plastic, and it ends up in the air and the waterways as road runoff.
Eventually, used tires make their ways into massive tire graveyards, some of which contain over 40 million tires and even catch fire occasionally. There are some possibilities of recycling used tires, but that comes with problems of its own.
This is actually a group of nine different sources of microplastics that come from major cities and urban environments.
These include microplastics produced from things like shoes and cooking utensils, as well as more industrial sources like artificial turf, paints and building coatings, and everything else that powers our cities.
City dust makes up a significant portion of the microplastic problem – but it’s the least defined of any category and requires multiple approaches to address.
And this dust is inside of your home as well, it’s not just outside!
Ever noticed how many reflective signs and posts there are while driving?
Or how many different kinds of markings and other odds and ends are placed on the pavement?
Well, a majority of these are made from plastic, and because of how often we all drive these markings tend to suffer from a lot of wear and tear, resulting in microplastic pollution.
Similar to our roads, we have a lot of hardware in the ocean, and all of this needs to be maintained with protective coatings.
Marine paint contains a lot of plastic and represents an often-overlooked source of microplastic debris that slowly erodes away.
And marine gear in general is one of the major sources of plastic feeding into oceanic landfills like the great pacific garbage patch, a massive swirling vortex of plastic trash in the Pacific Ocean.
While the IUCN report listed this as around 4% of ocean microplastics, more recent assessments have estimated it closer to 35%.
Personal care products
While microbeads in cosmetic and personal care products are now restricted in many countries, there are still manufacturers using them.
And it’s not just microbeads – as many personal care products contain petrochemical ingredients that are in powder form, instead of larger beads.
These tiny plastic bits remain a significant source of environmental pollution from microplastics, though they fall pretty far down the list of contributors when compared with other major sources.
The seventh most-significant source of microplastics is plastics manufacturing itself, meaning all the new plastic pellets that are shipped around to be used as a base for all kinds of different products.
Often called nurdles, the processing and transportation of these pellets creates a similar waste by-product made up of plastic dust and larger particles, and in some areas of the world they end up smothering and polluting beaches and other ecosystems.
Ironically, recyclable plastic might be making the issue of microplastic pollution even worse.
Recycling facilities no doubt create a lot of microplastic particles, but more than this, turning a plastic bottle into something like fibers for clothing speeds up its journey to becoming microplastics quite a bit.
In other words, plastic degrades faster after it’s recycled into something new, which means a lot of the time these recycling schemes are just an attempt at greenwashing plastic waste.
Plastic bags, bottles, and packaging will break down into microplastics over time, especially when exposed to heat or water.
This begins immediately after plastic is manufactured, which means microplastics can easily be released into whatever food or drink may be inside. And when plastic reaches the landfill, it’s tossed into an environment that’s literally designed to break down materials over time.
An average of over 14.5 million tons of plastic packaging is generated annually in the United States alone, or the weight of 100,000 blue whales (and plastic kills more whales than the whaling industry itself, too).
Here’s what happens:
- Plastic exposed to the elements in landfills break down into small particles
- These particles enter the water that flows through the plastic
- Groundwater containing microplastics and other toxins is picked up by plants, animals, and water processing facilities before ending up back in our diets
There are other sources of microplastics of course, and I’m sure you can imagine a handful of them quite easily. But in general, those are the most common sources to keep in mind, so keep them handy in case anyone in your life asks about microplastics!
It wasn’t until recently that the term microplastic even existed, and we still don’t know the extent of the long-term health implications.
But having plastic in our air, food, and bodies is clearly a significant risk, and there are steps that we can all take to reduce our exposure and minimize the impact of microplastics on the environment, wildlife, and our health.
What simple changes have you made to avoid microplastics in your life?