Everything You Need to Know about Microplastics

With World Ocean Day just around the corner and the growing noise surrounding microplastics, I thought it would be fitting to demystify them. This week's blog looks at what they are, what they do and how you can do your bit to help reduce them.

What is a microplastic?

A micro plastic is any plastic of less than 5mm in length. They are most commonly microbeads, little spheres of polyethylene, used in skincare products such as exfoliators. Microplastics can also be particles of broken down pieces of larger plastic, 'nurdles' the nuggets of plastic that are melted down before manufacture and finally fibres that come loose from synthetic clothing during the washing and drying processes.

Nurdles washed up on a beach.

Nurdles washed up on a beach.

The Threat from Microplastics

So what is the big deal about microplastics all of a sudden? As with most things it takes a little time for us to realise that there is a problem. Scientists still aren't sure the extent of the damage that microplastics can cause. However it has become apparent that they are entering our water system and our bodies at an alarming rate.

It has been proven that microplastics pose a very real threat to aquatic life. These plastics accumulate toxic chemicals as they make their way through the water system. When they are ingested by marine life, these chemicals have been proven to adversely affect growth and reproduction.

Microplastics are incredibly harmful to aquatic life

Microplastics are incredibly harmful to aquatic life

Although scientists are not yet sure of the extent to which microplastics are damaging to humans, there are some alarming statistics surrounding how much plastic we ingest. For those of us that eat fish, microplastics heavily pollute your meals. The average European who chooses to consume seafood ingests 11,000 plastic particles a year from seafood alone. Tiny pieces of the plastics are even able to enter your bloodstream. When you consider how we were warned off drinking from plastic bottles not so long ago, it's a worry to think what actually ingesting them could be doing to us. 

So, How Big is the Problem?

The UK are blazing the trail yet again... The highest recorded microplastic pollution in the world was discovered in a river in Manchester in 2016. During the floods this river flushed about 40bn pieces of microplastic into the ocean. This means that previous estimates of around 5 trillion tonnes of microplastic in the ocean are desperately low.

A survey conducted on water in plastic drinks bottles found alarming rates of microplastics. The average bottle contained 325 plastic particles for every litre of water being sold, with the worst bottle tested containing 10,000 plastic pieces per litre of water.

Because of their relatively small surface area, microplastics aren't very good at floating. We now know that 99% of all plastic in the ocean is not on the surface anymore, the problem is we aren't sure where it is, some is on the sea floor, some has been washed up onto beaches and some ingested by sea life.

Legislation Surrounding Microplastics

The only legislation concerning microplastics was introduced in 2015. This regulation stated that microbeads would no longer be allowed in cosmetics. This was rallied against for a while, but ulimately was easily replaced with things like nut shells, sand and salt all giving much the same results. As with anything, the easier it is to replace, the less it will be missed. 

Exfoliating face with coffee grains

Exfoliating face with coffee grains

What Can You Do?

There's a whole list of actions that you can take to reduce the microplastics that you produce, but it makes sense for a clothing company to focus on one really simple one. Look for clothing made from natural fibres. Synthetic material is commonly found in 'outdoor' clothing, leggings, fleeces and sportswear. These garments are often made from acrylic, polyester, polyamide, spandex and nylon. With each wash, garments like this can shed up to 700000 microfibres. Whilst clothing made from natural materials sheds fibres too, they are easily biodegradable, so don't accumulate in the same way that microplastics do.

For a more exhaustive list of action that you can take, why not visit the Ocean Society website? As with all of these problems, making one small change yourself might not seem like it would make a difference, but imagine the changes if everyone did!