Microplastics are everywhere: In our drinking water, in our food, in animals, and in our seas. In fact, more than 51 trillion microplastics are in our seas – that’s more than the number of stars in our galaxy! Recently, a study found humans eat a credit card of plastic every week on average. This isn’t on purpose, but rather, we’re consuming microplastics indirectly from the things we eat and our environment. Also, for the first time ever, plastic has been found in human placentas. The culprit? Microplastics – which are so tiny they can easily be ingested. But where do they come from, how do they get into us, and how can we avoid them? Lets analyze these questions together and come up with viable solutions. Here’s 6 ways to avoid microplastics (and where they come from in the first place).
6 Ways to Avoid Microplastics
What are microplastics? Where do they come from?
Microplastics are tiny little pieces of plastic, typically smaller than five millimeters. Bigger pieces of plastic can break up into smaller microplastics over time. Other times, items made from synthetic fibers shed microplastics over time.
There are several different sources of microplastic pollution. Here are the top microplastic polluter sources:
- Fishing gear
- Plastic pellets
- Cigarette butts
All of these shed microplastics and leach toxins overtime.
Why are microplastics bad?
It’s important to remember that plastic is made from petroleum and natural gas, which aren’t sustainably sourced. The same is true of microplastics.
Over time, microplastics accumulate harmful pollutants, like Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) and pesticides that absorb into plastics. When the microplastics end up in the ocean, or inside us indirectly, they basically leach these toxins over time. No thanks.
In terms of our ocean, chemical leaching from microplastics actually harm vital marine photosynthetic algae: They produce 10 percent of the oxygen that we need to live. Plastic pollution actually interferes with the growth, photosynthesis and oxygen production of Prochlorococcus. This is the ocean’s most abundant photosynthetic bacteria, so the fact plastic pollution is affecting it is devastating.
Microplastics have also been found inside all forms of marine life, from the gills of shellfish to the stomachs of whales. A recent study of microplastics in the deep ocean found microplastics in every single filter feeder studied, such as clams, oysters, mussels and scallops.
Microplastics are all over the ocean, from the surface of the water, to the bottom of the sea floor. They’ve even been found in remote places like the Arctic and Antarctica. It’s safe to say we have a microplastic problem and we need to do something NOW to stop it.
How can we avoid microplastics?
By now, you’re probably thinking: “Okay, microplastics are bad and they’re everywhere – so how the heck do I avoid them??” Glad you asked.
1. Reduce your fish consumption
The ocean is full of microplastics (over 51 trillion to be exact), so it’s safe to assume these end up in the fish we eat. Microplastics are so small they’re easily absorbed into fish, be it directly or indirectly.
Many marine species mistake little bits of plastic as food, causing a blockage in their stomach which eventually leads to starvation. Other microplastics are so small they’re absorbed into the fish by accident – like filter feeds breathing in plastic particles.
The fishing industry contributes to 20 percent of ocean plastic to be exact. Discarded fishing gear is the main culprit – every year, an estimated 640,000 – 800,000 tones of fishing gear is lost worldwide. Fishermen often discard broken nets into the ocean without impunity. It’s more cost-efficient for them this way, opposed to recycling or properly discarding the nets.
When these fishing nets end up in the environment, they do a world of harm to our oceans: They shed microplastics which end up in our oceans and marine life; they post a choking hazard for marine life that may mistake it for food; they ensnare and entangle marine life, which can make them lose a limb or worse – their life.
Ever heard of the 700,000km squared Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Well, 46 percent of it is made up of fishing nets. This is often referred to as ghost gear, and it includes fishing ropes, eel traps, and baskets. It’s all made from plastic, so over time it will break up into harmful microplastics.
What you can do:
- Reduce the amount of fish you eat, or avoid it entirely. Fish consume microplastics, and when we consume them, they end up in us. If we cut fish from our lives, we’d be saving over 640,000 tons of fishing gear from entering our oceans every year. Plus, we’d help avoid overfishing and bycatch: Two-thirds of the world’s seafood is overfished and global bycatch may amount to 40 percent of the world’s catch.
- Advocate for more sustainable fishing practices. Boats could be forced to register the number of nets they have onboard and return with the same number or face fines. Another idea is installing GPS trackers to nets that link them to boats, making it impossible to discard without impunity.
- Look for sustainably caught fish, if you can’t reduce or eliminate your consumption. At the least, check out Seafood Watch – they create guides on which fish you should avoid, and which are the best choice.
2. Do your laundry smarter
Most of the clothes we wear today are made from synthetic fibers that shed microplastics with every wash. Some of the most popular synthetic fabrics out there are nylon, polyester, acrylic and spandex. All of these are made from plastics, so it’s no surprise they shed microplastics in the wash.
In fact, every time a piece of synthetic clothing is washed, it releases 1,900 plastic microfibres into the water. These microfibres go from your washing machine straight to sewage plants or local waterways. They’re too small to be filtered, so they end up washed out to sea.
Sadly, fish are indeed eating plastic microfibers. A recent study looked into this and found even fresh water fish like brown trout, cisco and perch are all consuming plastic. All of the 18 species sampled had ingested plastic, and the majority of it was microfibers. The research even traced it back up the waste stream to local washing machines.
Microfibers don’t biodegrade and when fish consume them, they can build up in their digestive tracts, causing physical harm. Microfibers are neurotoxins, potential carcinogens, and endocrine disruptors, so they will leach contaminants into the fish and affect their long term health overall.
We eat these fish, so we’re getting all of these toxins into our own bodies as well. Not to mention, a 2018 scientific paper found that people ingest over 5,800 of these particles every year. Yuck.
What you can do:
- Choose natural fibers over synthetic ones. Natural fibers like organic cotton, wool, hemp, silk, linen, and alpaca are some good examples. These won’t shed microplastics into laundry water.
- Wash your clothes less. The more you wash them, the more they will shed microfibers. After all, a single load can release hundreds of microfibers into the water supply. Truthfully, you can get a few wears out of most clothing items before they need a wash anyway.
- Get a Cora Microfiber Laundry Ball. This can help catch the microfibers that naturally shed from clothes in the wash. It’s made from 100 percent recycled plastic, and recyclable after you enjoy it for years.
3. Ditch cigarettes
Did you know 5.6 trillion cigarettes are manufactured every year? Of that, about 4.5 trillion cigarettes are discarded each year worldwide. They’re one of the most littered items in the world, and their synthetic filters are the main problem.
Their filters are made from a particularly resilient plastic, cellulose acetate, and these can take up to 10 years to fully decompose. Problem is, they’re leeching toxic chemicals into the waterway during that time. Just one cigarette butt is enough to kill a fish and can contaminate up to 500 liters of water.
What you can do:
- Ditch smoking altogether. I know this is easier said than done for most, but it’s still worth the effort to try. This is the most eco-friendly option by far. You don’t have to do it overnight, but it will make a world of difference for both the planet and your health!
- Look for cigarette brands with biodegradable filters. If you truly cannot stop smoking, a good alternative is to avoid cigarettes with plastic filters. Companies like Greenbutt make biodegradable filters that are much better for the planet.
4. Drive thoughtfully
A more surprising source of microplastics? Tires. In fact, tires are one of the biggest sources of plastic pollution in UK rivers and seas. This isn’t because the tires themselves are being thrown into waterways (tho that does happen too), but rather the microplastics they shed while the car is being driven.
Tires are actually a blend of plastics, chemicals and synthetic materials. As the tire is constantly used and worn down, it begins to shred and material peels off that ends up littering the road. These microplastics are so tiny you can’t really see them on the road, but they’re there.
The microplastics ends up washing into streams and rivers when it rains. Across Europe, half a million tons of tire fragments are released every year. About 19,000 tones of microplastic tire pollution ends up in our waterways and our seas.
What you can do:
- Drive consciously and carefully. If you must drive, try to drive gently so less microfibers shed off your tires. Speeding or doing crazy turns with your car will definitely shed way more microfibers.
- Consider driving less, walking more, and biking. This will help reduce the amount of microfibers your tires release altogether, by simply keeping them off the road. Plus, you’ll be reducing your carbon footprint while getting some exercise in!
- Look into more sustainable tire options. This can be a hard thing to do, as the sustainable tire industry isn’t exactly booming yet. But it’s worth doing some research on! See if any of your local automotive shops can help you out as well by asking them about their sustainable tire options – you might be surprised at what they say.
5. Hold the plastic industry responsible
Not all of the blame should fall on the consumer when it comes to microplastic pollution – if anything, a majority of it should fall on the plastic industry who are the ones making the materials to begin with!
Plastic pellets in particular, aka nurdles or ‘mermaid’s tears’, are highly in demand by a lot of companies that utilize plastic. These are tiny toxic pellets that are spliced down to make them easier to transport during the manufacturing process. They’re often used to make bigger plastic items.
Sadly, millions of these nurdles end up lost during the transport process and find their way into freshwater sources, and eventually the ocean. It’s estimated the plastic industry releases 53 billion nurdles in the UK, which is the same amount it would take to make 88 million plastic bottles.
Because nurdles have a tiny size and bright colors, they can easily be mistake for food by marine life. This isn’t good for a number of reasons: Nurdles harbor toxic chemicals from the organic pollutants that fester on their surface; The fish that eat them are often consumed by us, which means we’re indirectly eating plastic and absorbing toxins into our own bodies.
Alongside nurdles, the plastic industry has several other sins, so to speak, under its belt. Even bigger plastic items they make will eventually break up into microplastics over time. With only 9 percent of plastic actually being recycled, it’s highly likely these items will just end up in our environments over time.
What you can do:
- Hold the plastic industry accountable for their lost nurdles. This problem is ultimately in their hands and it’s up to the plastic industry to make changes to the supply chain and manufacturing system. Still, it’s good to pressure them to do so!
- Join the Great Global Nurdle Hunt to help track down these toxic pellets. This involves teams across 60 countries scouring beaches for them and keeping track of where the biggest clumps are.
- Write emails to brands, businesses and companies on their plastic use. Tell them to stop using so much plastic! You can start the email by saying what you like about the brand, then go into the problem (too much plastic packaging, the product itself is plastic, etc), and then offer a solution or your thoughts.
- Pressure big brands on social media to move away from plastic. Comment on their Instagram posts and ask them to ditch plastic. If they’re a big enough brand, they can afford to move away from wasteful plastic!
6. Lead a plastic-free life
Generally speaking, leading a plastic-free life is the best way to avoid microplastic pollution, or plastic pollution of any kind. When you go plastic-free, you won’t be producing the trash that leads to all this pollution in the first place.
Now, that being said, it can be very hard to completely rid yourself of plastic. Plastic is pretty sneaky – it’s in everything from our mattresses, to our furniture, to our brooms. You don’t want to drive yourself crazy, so opt to reduce or eliminate single-use plastic as much as possible.
Like I’ve said before, plastic breaks up, not down. So eventually, all plastic will break up into microplastics. Take a walk on the beach and you’ll see this for yourself – erosion over time leads to this. So it’s best to just avoid plastic in the first place.
Since it’s initial production, we’ve created 8.3 billion tons of plastic. Only 9 percent of it has actually gotten recycled. The other 91 percent has been incinerated, put in a landfill, or ends up in our environment. You can safely assume a lot of it has now become microplastics too.
What you can do:
- Go zero waste, or low waste. I can help you get started – grab my free ebook 10 Ways to Reduce Trash. There are also over 200 blog posts on my website covering a VERY wide range of topics from how to recycle contact lens to composting in an apartment. Check out my zero waste pages, or do a quick search in my search bar.
- Learn the 5 R’s of zero waste. Reduce, Reuse and Recycle are not the only Rs you should know, they’re just the beginning.
- Conduct a Trash Audit. Seeing where you stand in terms of waste will really help you get a better feel for what kind of waste you’re producing the most of. Understanding your trash is the first step in reducing it.
- Sign up for my webinar, staying zero waste during a pandemic. I’ll be sharing all my tips for avoiding plastic during this tough time, as well as ways to go beyond this. You’ve likely encountered some excess plastic during covid-19, but there are things you can do to reduce it, or think beyond it.
How will you choose to avoid microplastics?
For more ways to help the environment, check out these deforestation solutions.
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