Future

What are microplastics and why are they a problem?

From the deepest parts of our ocean to the summit of Mount Everest, microplastics have spread to nearly every crevice on the planet.  

Words:
Charlotte Cameron
Images:
Shutterstock
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Many are aware of the wider impacts of plastic pollution on our environment and there have been significant behavioural change towards phasing out single-use plastics. The recent introduction of the Plastic Packaging Tax in the UK has offered greater financial incentives for businesses to move towards recycled plastics, while at an individual level we are more aware of recycling and are opting for plastic-free alternatives. Global campaigns have helped with this, illustrating the impacts that discarded plastics have on wildlife; from images of sea turtles ingesting plastic bags to birds caught up in plastic packaging.  

But studies into the impacts of microplastics in humans and in food are only just emerging.  

What we do know is that we come across and ingest microplastics every day – in our drinking water, in the meat, milk and blood of farm animals, table salt and in beer.  

What are microplastics and where do they come from?

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic that are less than five millimetres in length, or the size of a small sesame seed.   

They come from a variety of sources and are often broken down into two categories: primary and secondary microplastics.  

Primary microplastics are the particles designed that way for commercial uses such as microbeads in facial scrubs or microfibres in textiles. Secondary microplastics are from the breakdown of larger plastics such as water bottles. The breakdown of this plastic is caused through environmental factors such as exposure to wind or sun.  

The issue with this is that their breakdown doesn’t just end in microplastics. Instead of breaking down into harmless molecules they decompose into particles similar to dust called nanoparticles.  

Plastic pollution has invaded our oceans mainly due to littering but also because of storms, water run-off and winds that carry plastic of all sizes into our ocean. It is estimated that there are twenty-four trillion pieces of microplastics in our ocean which roughly weighs the equivalent of roughly 30 billion 500-ml plastic water bottles. Some research suggests that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the sea by weight.  

But microplastics are not turning up solely in our oceans. Now, studies show that they are found in human blood, our drinking water, in meat and milk of farm animals.  

Why are microplastics bad?

All plastic pollution is detrimental to our environment; however, due to their size microplastics pose a particularly difficult challenge. Their size means they are more likely to get into our food chain and the result is that the chemicals end up in our food, our water, in our wildlife and in us.  

The health impact of microplastics on humans is still relatively unknown and hard to assess as each bit of microplastics contains a different combination of chemicals. Some research suggests that humans are consuming around a credit card’s worth of plastic a week.  

More studies have been done into the impacts of microplastics on our environment and wildlife.  In July scientists at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VUA) in the Netherlands found microplastics in beef and pork for the first time, as well as the blood of cows and pigs on farms.  

They were found in every sample of animal pellet feed tested too which is a possible cause for contamination. The food products itself were packaged in plastic which scientists are suggesting is another possible route. Using the same methods to test the animal products, the VUA also reported on microplastics in human blood.  

One thing is certain. The problems microplastics cause will only intensify as around 400 million tonnes of plastic is produced each year and that is expected to double by 2050. The challenge is that even if we eventually phase out most plastics – existing plastics will continue to degrade and at the moment this is a mass estimated at around five billion tonnes.  

Tech that is removing microplastics from our environment

With advancing innovation and technology, new solutions are emerging to tackle the growing microplastics crisis.  

Bacteria

Studies, such as one done by Dr Juan José Alava, are looking into bottom feeders already in our oceans, from sea cucumbers to tiny organisms, that could act as “living vacuum cleaners”. These strains of bacteria are able to break down synthetic material. ““The idea is to identify communities of bacteria and try to enhance them – not by incorporating a new mix of genes created by humans, but by stimulating them to break down plastic,” Alava says. 

Magnets

Fionn Ferreira, a 21-year-old Irish inventor, came up with a solution to magnetise the removal of microplastics. Winning the top prize at the 2019 Google Science Fair, Ferreira’s homemade “ferrofluid”, which is a mixture of oil and powdered rust, successfully removed 88% of microplastics from water samples. In the future, this could act as a self-cleaning filtration device that could be used in ocean engines. 

Plant-based nets

A new type of water filters made from a plant based mesh is helping to filter out even the tiniest of plastic particles: nanoplastics. This technology can help researchers to study nanoplastics while also removing them from our oceans. 

How to avoid microplastics

Although the human health impacts of microplastics are relatively unknown at this stage, many people are looking for ways to avoid consuming and producing microplastics in their everyday lives.  

Here are just five ways: 

Switch up your laundry routine

Many of our clothes are made from plastic particles. Polyester, nylon and other synthetic fibres make up around 60% of the material that make up our clothes. When washed or dried, tiny particles can become dislodged. Opting for air drying where possible or washing settings of a lower speed can help stop this from happening. 

Use plastic-free cosmetics

Personal care products are often made up of plastic components like microbeads in face scrubs and toothpastes. Look to see which beauty brands avoid plastic in their products.  

Use public transport

Car tires are a major source of microplastics as friction causes tires to break down and shed particles. In busy cities with lots of traffic this leads to “city dust” which is an accumulation of plastic particles and other debris. Using public transport can help avoid this tire erosion. 

Research clothing materials

You can avoid microplastics from your clothing by opting for garments made from natural fibres – cotton, linen or hemp, for example. 

Advocate for single-use plastics

Most plastics will eventually break down into microplastics over time so one of the best ways to help tackle this crisis is to avoid single-use plastics all together. Opt for a tote bag over a plastic shopping bag or a keep cup instead of a throwaway takeaway cup for your coffee.  

Companies tackling plastic pollution

While innovative solutions are emerging to tackle existing plastic pollution, an increasing number of companies are adopting plastic-free alternatives within their business to stop the root cause.  

One of these is Flexi-Hex, a company providing an innovative packaging sleeve made from recycled paper that protects fragile products in transit. It acts as an alternative for unsustainable packaging like bubble wrap or air-filled plastic, helping to minimise excess waste and plastic.  

The company was started by two surfers looking to solve a problem. How can they transport their boards safely while minimising their impact on the environment? Since then, the company has prevented over 3,166km of plastic packaging from being used, the equivalent to, as the crow flies, Cornwall to Turkey!  

Companies are experiencing a real shift in consumer demand, with over two thirds of UK consumers wanting to see greater use of paper-based packaging which can go into kerbside recycling collections, and 36% of Europeans boycotting brands over packaging sustainability concerns. 

“Our sleeves have been designed with the consumer in mind, offering an elevated unpacking experience that is both planet-friendly and luxurious without compromising on functionality” Flexi-Hex said. 

The Beeswax Wrap Co is another company born out of a gap in the market for plastic-free packaging alternatives.  

Their founder Fran wanted a more sustainable alternative to cling film to use in the kitchen and so developed a wrap made from British beeswax and organic cotton. Now, The Beeswax Wrap Co offers a collection of sustainable plastic-free products for the home, all handcrafted in a solar-powered workshop in the Cotswolds.  

Not only are these companies working to provide a sustainable solution to help tackle plastic pollution, they are also working to measure and reduce their own carbon emissions through Planet Mark certification with a reduction target of 5% annually.  

We all play a role in ensuring we are not contributing to the plastic pollution crisis. This requires education and awareness, innovative solutions, and collective action across individuals, organisations and governments.  

What is the business case for sustainability?

Thursday 21 February 2024, 1:00-2:00 PM

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