Microplastics: a macro problem
If you are getting a bit confused and bogged down by all this chat about microplastics, read on.
The term microplastics is bandied around a lot in the media at the moment - and for a good reason. Plastic is found in our drinking water, soil and has already made it all the way into our food chain. As well as containing inherently harmful chemicals within its own molecular structure, it also attracts other toxic pollutants and brings them along for the ride. So, how has this happened, and what can we do about it?
Microplastics or micro beads… what’s the difference?
Officially, a microplastic is any tiny piece of plastic 5mm in diameter or less. There are two main types of microplastics found kicking around on our lovely planet earth, and rather inventively they have been dubbed "primary" and "secondary" microplastics.
Primary microplastics refer to small plastics which are manufactured intentionally for certain purposes. Commercial uses include things such as facial exfoliators, toothpastes, scrubs and other cosmetic products, as well as microfibers shed from clothes or fishing nets.
They can also be found used in industrial applications such as air blasting technologies, where high pressure air and small plastic particles are emptied to clean engines, machinery, silos and pretty much any other large scale piece of equipment you can think of.
These micro beads are often used repeatedly before being discarded, and as such are frequently found to be further contaminated with harmful heavy metals such as chromium and lead.
Now, although micro beads are harmful to the environment and their use is inherently unsustainable, it should be noted that they make up only a very small percentage of the microplastic problem.
To understand this we have to look at the second in this particularly nasty category of ocean pollutants: secondary microplastics.
Secondary microplastics refer to small plastic pieces which began life as part of a larger piece of plastic. Their origin can be anything made from plastic which has broken down over time, like water bottles or plastic toothbrushes.
The vast prevalence of microplastics with uneven shapes suggests that fragmentation is a key source. Fragmentation of large plastic debris is the result of the reduced structural integrity of the plastic, caused by environmental and chemical processes. The problem is that although the plastic is “breaking down” it is never really going away - the plastic becomes smaller and smaller, and is therefore harder to detect, harder to clean up, and easier to consume.
There is another category of microplastics which has been recognised relatively recently. This is somewhere between primary and secondary microplastics, and their sources are vast and highly prevalent within the day to day running of our society. Here are a few examples:
- Dust from car tires: millions of cars on the road driving around all day long. Our tires wear out and that wear and tear results in tiny plastic dust particles. These particles are picked up by rain water, flushed into sewers and water sources and ultimately end up flooding the environment.
- Synthetic textiles: synthetic clothing and other fabrics are fantastic and have the multiple applications and benefits to the user. However, upon washing and general wear and tear, the plastic breaks down and the tiny fibres are easily transported into our water courses.
- Paints: protective coatings are often oil based. These break down and flake off over time causing subsequent micro plastic pollution.
How do we solve this and what can I do about it?
There is no denying the helplessness that one can feel when leaping into the microplastics rabbit hole - but it’s important not to allow yourself to feel too overwhelmed and say “F*** it”. There are many things that you can do to help turn the tide and slow the flow of these spreading into our environment and onto your dinner plate.
Choose to reuse: Buy non-plastic containers which you can reuse day in, day out. Drink from a water bottle made from steel or aluminium. Say no to single use plastics.
Choose to refuse: Say no to single use plastic items that you don’t really need such as straws, plastic cups, plastic bags etc. It only takes some small changes to make a big difference.
Switch out everyday items which are made of plastic to reduce your footprint: The online market is an incredible tool and is catching up very quickly to this environmental problem. This isn't just a trend. There are plastic free alternatives to pretty much every household item you can think of. From shampoos to toothbrushes, toothpaste to deck chairs, the list is extensive. All it takes is a simple question with every purchase: does this need to be plastic or can I find a substitute?
Choose natural: Where possible, buy clothes made of natural fabrics such as wool, organic cotton, waxed cotton etc. In time you can turn your wardrobe plastic-free.
Educate your mates: Never before has the spread of information and ideas been so rapid. We all have the power to share, educate and influence. Use this power and do it responsibly. Get your tribe and your team on board.
This isn’t a hipster problem - this is an everyone problem.
There is a tendency for people to see environmental issues and problems as trends which don’t concern them.
“Look at that hipster with his reusable coffee cup” or “metal straws are for hippies”
Well, fortunately plastic pollution is not a problem which can be politicised or aimed at only certain parts of the market: Plastic pollution is a global issue which affects us all in equal measures.
It is therefore our responsibility to help turn off the tap by looking to plastic-free alternatives and being conscious with our every day decisions. This isn’t just for millennials, vegans, hippies and eco warriors - this is for you too.