We’ve heard a lot about them. Some people say they are harmless and too small to do any damage. Others say that because they are so small, they cause more damage.
Microplastics have been a point of debate due to a lack of research and understanding of their impact. But in recent years this has changed. We now have a better understanding of their impact and the real cost of these small evils to the environment.
So, what are they? What are they in? How do they really impact our environment?
Let’s start with what they are.
Microplastics are tiny, tiny pieces of plastic that are 5mm in diameter or smaller. And many are much, much smaller than that.
It turns out there are two types of micro plastics, aptly called primary microplastics and secondary microplastics.
Primary microplastics are plastics that are intentionally made that small, they are manufactured with the entire purpose of being that small and not degrading easily.
Secondary microplastics appear when larger plastics, such as single use plastics degrade and break into smaller and smaller pieces. As an example, one biodegradable plastic garbage bag, can easily break into hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of pieces of microplastic. That’s a little bit scary!
Pictured: one single plastic bag floating in the ocean can turn into millions of microscopic pieces of plastic during its 'breakdown' process.
What are they in?
Ok, we get secondary microplastics were originally larger plastics that we use in our everyday life.
We understand where they come from. It could be anything from take away containers that go to landfill, plastic tubes from your beauty products, plastic packaging from your bread or frozen goods, plastic bags, you get the picture.
Have a think through your daily life, you might be surprised at the amount of plastics you use during your normal day.
Primary microplastic can be a little bit sneakier. One of the most common products these are found in are in face or body scrubs, cosmetics or exfoliators. They are specifically made as ‘micro-beads’ that act as the exfoliant.
Even more worrying is that many toothpastes, particularly whitening toothpastes, also contain micro-beads. Just think with this, while this goes directly into your bathroom sink and straight into our waterways many times, you also could be swallowing some.
Another use of microplastics is in high pressure blast cleaning for machines, engines or the like to get rid of rust, grime or paint.
Pictured: Primary microplastics can hide in made made products such as skin exfoliants and toothpaste, which both wash directly into our waterways.
How do they impact our environment?
The problem with microplastics is that they don’t break down any further. In theory, they can actually be in our environment forever.
They also are so small that many times even the strongest filtration system don’t take them out of our waste water. So they get a free pass straight from our face scrubs, toothpastes or car engine cleans and into our oceans.
It’s at this point that they cause horrendous problems. They are eaten or ingested, either intentionally or unintentionally, by fish and other small marine animals. These can be ingested by marine animals such as types of plankton, crustaceans or even marine worms. The plastics then make these animals sick, in the best case, or can even kill them in the worst case.
And it doesn’t stop there. Moving up the food chain, these smaller animals are eaten by larger ones, who get the little belly full of microplastics also. Follow this further up and you will likely find humans eating fish or sea salt that also contains microplastics.
Quite concerning really!
Pictured: A deceased seabird, revealed the amount of plastics that can be ingested over a lifetime, and likely the cause of this birds death as many plastics cannot be passed.
What can we do?
As usual though, we can make a difference by making a few small changes in our lives. Here's a few simple changes that will make a direct impact towards the contribution of microplastics.
- Use natural cosmetic products which use plant based exfoliants.
- Buy toothpaste without microplastics in them.
- Be mindful of the plastics we buy and use during our normal day to day life.
- Always choose reusable options where possible and recycle any other time.
Small changes when made together can make a huge difference.
Products such as Aussie Bread Bags reusable, breathable, fabric bags can replace plastic bags in our day and make a big difference to the environment around us.