What are Microplastics?

Microplastics

Microplastics are exactly what they sound like: incredibly small threads and particles of plastic. Well, if we want to get technical about it, they are actually any plastic particle less than 5 millimeters in size (which isn’t even “micro” … it’s “milli”). These tiny, pesky pieces of plastic, which have been found on the top of Mount Everest and in the depths of the Mariana Trench, are impacting you, me, and the environment in ways we never saw coming. The effects of microplastic are still being studied, but we do know that 15.5 million tons of it litter the ocean floor. 

Want a hot take? Just consider avoiding single-use plastics as a rule from now on in the name of climate, waste, water, microplastics, health… all of it. Single-use plastics are kind of the worst, and buying one reusable item and using it forever is almost always the better choice.

How are microplastics created?

Plastic can take hundreds to thousands of years to decompose, but the dirty little secret is that every piece of plastic is destined to become a whole bunch of microplastic. As plastics slowly break down due to radiation from the sun, scratching up against hard surfaces, or changes in temperature, they become microplastics and can end up in our oceans, bodies, and forests. Microplastics are also created when polymer-based materials (like polyester) shed in the laundry. The Plastic Soup Foundation estimates that up to 35% of plastic pollution in our oceans comes from microfibers shed by synthetic fabrics.

Are microplastics “sustainable”?

No, definitely not. Let’s talk human health impacts first: Due to their small size, microplastics can physically enter the bloodstream, and if they get small enough, they can even penetrate and enter the cells in your body. (wtf?!) They can cause cell damage, endocrine disruption, and act as a breeding ground for germs. On the planet and animals side: Most microplastics end up polluting the ocean and eventually disrupt the digestion of marine animals, too. 

What kind of products produce microplastics?

There are two types of microplastics: primary and secondary. Primary microplastics are plastics that are intentionally tiny by design, like microbeads that act as exfoliating agents in soaps, body washes, and cosmetics. Secondary microplastics are the result of bigger plastics degrading over time, and as stated earlier, all plastics will eventually become microplastics - everything from trash bags to sponges to packaging. And as you wash your polymer-based clothes, duvet inserts, and linens, even more microplastics will end up in our waterways. 

Still want to learn more? Check out some of our favorite references: