Author: Ben Kassoy
Back in second grade, it took seeing exactly one photo of a sea turtle caught in a plastic soda ring to remind me to cut up those six-pack rings every single time. Reducing, reusing, and generally turtle-proofing everyday plastic is a good start, but what about the plastics we don’t think about – i.e., the ones we often can’t even see? Welcome to the tiny, yet massive, world of microplastics.
Microplastics: A Little Definition
“Microplastics” are, well, small pieces of plastic – specifically, any particle smaller than five millimeters in diameter, which is about the size of a sesame seed. Many microplastics are actually microscopic.
Two of a Kind: The Types of Microplastics
Primary microplastics start as small and enter the environment in their original form. That could include synthetic microfibers in clothing, pellets used in the manufacturing of goods, and microbeads (which the U.S. banned from personal care products in 2015).
Secondary microplastics started as bigger, stronger pieces of plastic and started to break down as they aged. (Same here, plastic. Same here.) That means anything from a plastic water bottle, to a straw, to a tire – all of which, over a long period of time, could decompose into tiny or microscopic particles.
True story: every single piece of plastic that’s ever been created is still here in some form.
Going Nowhere: A Mind-Blowing Fact
True story: every single piece of plastic that’s ever been created is still here in some form. Yep, plastic isn’t biodegradable – it never totally decomposes, just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces until it’s a microplastic.
But How?: Ways Microplastics Enter the Environment
While larger single-use plastics we use in everyday life do a number on the planet, more than 85% of microplastics can be attributed to things we’re not actively aware of, including tiny synthetic fibers from washing machines, tire erosion, and city dust. And while treatment plants do filter most microplastics out of our drinking water, the “sludge” filtered out at these facilities is often used as a fertilizer replacement, which puts microplastics right back into the environment.
Bad or Worse: Possible Effects of Microplastics
Once microplastics reach rivers, lakes, and oceans, marine life can mistake them for food. Plastic isn’t digestible, so if an animal swallows plastic, it’s harmful or even fatal. Because the studies are relatively new, there are still major gaps in our understanding of whether microplastics are harmful to humans, but considering plastic’s effects on the planet and on wildlife, there’s definitely cause for concern. Keep an eye out for new revelations as research continues.
Clean Up Your Act: Laundry Tips for Reducing Microplastics
Because washing machines are a major source of microplastics, here are some easy ways to make an impact, starting at home:
- Wash your clothes less frequently, and only wash full loads of laundry
- Use cold water and launder for a shorter cycle whenever possible
- Air dry your clothes instead of running them through the dryer
- Choose clothes made from natural materials as opposed to synthetic fibers
Plastic Stops Here: A Few More Pro Tips
Looking for more ways to reduce microplastics? We’ve got you:
- Walk, bike, or take public transportation to reduce the runoff caused by tire wear
- Participate in local cleanups to keep plastic out of bodies of water
- Reduce your plastic use, and opt for reusable or compostable products
- Advocate for water treatment reform so filtered microplastics aren’t released into the environment