What is microplastic?

As the name implies, microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic. Officially, they measure less than 5mm, which is about the size of a pencil eraser, and can be smaller than a sesame seed. Some fragments are so tiny that you need a microscope to see them! When that happens, they’re called nanoplastics.

Where does microplastic come from?

Microplastic doesn’t come from just one source. Some microplastics are made small on purpose while others come from the wear and tear or weathering of larger plastics. Let’s explore some of the most common sources of microplastic pollution together! 

Microfiber from synthetic textiles

Over 60% of all clothing sold worldwide is made from synthetic, plastic-based materials like polyester, nylon, lycra, and acrylic. When washed and dried, these synthetic textiles shed tiny plastic fibers known as microfibers. 

It’s estimated that a single load of laundry can release up to 12 million microfibers in the wash cycle alone. Perhaps that’s why microfibers are the most prevalent type of microplastic pollution in our oceans today.

Most washing machines don’t have filters to catch microfibers. And because they’re so small, microfibers can also pass through the filters at water treatment centers and enter the ocean in wastewater discharges. 

The leftover sludge from treated water is often used to make fertilizer, so microfibers can still enter the environment even if they are caught by a filter. 

But washing machines aren’t the only problem. Most dryers don’t have filters small enough to catch microfibers, which means these tiny plastic particles are also released directly into the air through our dryer vents.

Nurdles from the plastics industry

Nurdles are small plastic pellets that get melted down and turned into many of the plastic products used by people. Nurdles mostly enter the environment through leaks, spills, and other storage, transportation, and recycling errors. They’re sometimes referred to as “mermaid tears” because of their impact on marine life.

It’s estimated that more than 550 million pounds (250,000 metric tons) of this material enters the ocean every year, making it the second most common type of microplastic found in our oceans. For context, just one pound of pelletized HDPE plastic contains about 25,000 nurdles. 

Microbeads from beauty products

Microbeads are a type of microplastic that’s intentionally added to health and beauty products like soaps, scrubs, and toothpaste as an exfoliant or abrasive agent. To give you some sense of scale, a single tube of toothpaste can contain as many as 300,000 microbeads.

Plastic microbeads first started appearing in products about 50 years ago and quickly began to replace natural ingredients. Like microfibers, microbeads are so small that they pass through filters and enter our oceans in wastewater discharges. Most countries have already enacted bans on microbeads, but they are still produced in some parts of the world.

Microplastic from the breakdown of larger plastics

Plastics in the environment don’t biodegrade, or break down into their raw components like a leaf becomes soil. Instead, they’re exposed to the sun’s UV rays as well as weather and other physical and natural forces like wind, rain, and waves that cause it to become extremely weak and brittle. Over time, even the largest plastic pollutants become microplastics and nanoplastics. 

This type of microplastic is difficult to trace, so there’s no reliable estimate for how much of the microplastic present in the environment comes from the weathering and photodegradation of larger plastics.

Microplastic from land-based infrastructure and maritime activities

Tires are made from a mix of natural rubber, synthetic polymers, and other additives. Normal wear and tear releases tiny dust-like particles that enter the environment through air currents or runoff that carries them to nearby waterways.

Our roadways, infrastructure, and many aspects of the maritime industry are built and maintained with a variety of plastic-based products. This includes raw materials as well as coatings like paints, epoxies, lacquers, and vinyl. 

Weathering, abrasion by vehicles, construction, maintenance, and/or disposal can all result in the release of microplastics into the environment.

Microplastic from city dust

City dust is a catch-all term that encompasses sources of microplastic pollution that have a relatively small footprint on their own but collectively account for a significant portion of microplastic pollution in our environment. It includes everything from the wear and tear of synthetic sneaker soles and plastic cooking utensils to the abrasion of infrastructure like building coatings and artificial turf.

Despite its name, city dust isn’t only made in cities. While the biggest contributions do come from areas with the largest human populations, weathering and wear-and-tear of the hidden-in-plain-sight plastics we use every day around the world contribute to microplastic pollution in our waterways.

Where is microplastic found?

The easy answer is everywhere. From the peaks of Mount Everest to the Arctic tundra, from the fertile farmland soil of China to the national parks of the United States, researchers have found microplastic in virtually every environment on earth. 

Microplastics are the most abundant type of plastic pollution in our oceans. It’s estimated that more than 14 million tons of microplastic has already settled on the ocean floor, with up to 125 trillion plastic particles still floating on the surface. There is no reliable estimate for how much microplastic remains suspended in the waters in between.

The impacts of microplastic pollution

Microplastic research is still in its infancy and we still have a lot to learn about its impact on the environment, wildlife, and people. However, we’ve already learned enough to know that urgent and immediate action is necessary, so let’s dive deeper into what we already know! 

Microplastic can absorb and transport toxic chemicals

Plastic of any size can introduce and absorb chemical pollutants from the surrounding environment. This includes persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, a group of toxic compounds that are known to harm humans and wildlife. POPs can be transported vast distances by wind and water. They can also be absorbed by ocean plastic in concentrations up to a million times greater than the surrounding seawater.

Sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they’re so resistant to environmental degradation, POPs include a variety of pesticides, industrial chemicals, and byproducts like DDT, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and dioxins. 

In 2001, an international treaty was signed to eliminate and/or restrict the production and use of POPs, but these chemicals continue to pollute our environment decades later.

Plastic introduces toxins into the food chain

POPs and some other chemicals have high lipid solubility, which is a fancy way of saying they’re attracted to fats and oils. So when animals eat plastic (or consume prey that has eaten plastic), any toxins present are gradually absorbed by and stored in their bodies. Scientists refer to this process as bioaccumulation. 

When predators eat, they ingest any plastic that’s still inside their prey and absorb the toxins present in their flesh. This is known as biomagnification and it means apex predators like sharks, whales, and marine mammals can have significantly higher concentrations of toxic chemicals in their bodies than the prey species they consume. 

Over time, the bioaccumulation and biomagnification of toxins can cause a variety of health issues. These include endocrine disorders, reproductive dysfunction, compromised immune systems, neurological problems, and abnormal behavior—all of which can have long-term impacts on the conservation of vulnerable and endangered species that are struggling to recover their shrinking populations.

Humans eat microplastic, too

Microplastics have been found in human foods like fish, shellfish, table salt, honey, bottled water, and even beer. In fact, the average person consumes about 5 grams of plastic each week—the equivalent of one credit card.

Microplastics and nanoplastics have already been found in human placentas, excrement, and blood, as well as organs like our lungs. While more research is needed to understand the full impacts of plastic consumption on human health, a report released by the Endocrine Society cited evidence of direct cause-and-effect links between plastic and specific health impacts to the human endocrine system, including cancer, diabetes, reproductive disorders, and neurological impairments of developing fetuses and children. 

Microplastics are even in the atmosphere and the air we breathe

Ultimately, microplastics don’t stay in one place, but move around the world in our planet’s natural cycles and systems. Microplastics in the ocean can become airborne through sea spray. City dust and other microplastics can be so fine that they’re lifted off the ground and into the atmosphere on passing winds that distribute them across our planet. 

It’s estimated that the average person breathes in roughly the same number of plastic particles they eat: about 50,000 particles per year. While more research is needed to determine the full impact on human health, we already know enough about plastic pollution to know that urgent and immediate action is needed to end this global crisis.

Clean the ocean every time you shop

Plastic pollution is a complex issue and there is no silver bullet solution. However, there are steps we can all take to reduce our plastic footprint and live a more ocean-minded lifestyle. 

One of the most effective things you can do right now is to eliminate unnecessary plastics from your life. Start by swapping single-use plastics for sustainable and reusable alternatives. And when it’s time to refresh your wardrobe, invest in a few quality pieces made from natural fibers like cotton, wool, jute, flax, or silk instead of synthetic.

And remember: People can’t be part of the solution until they’re aware of the problem. Raising awareness is also critical to driving positive action as both informed consumers and citizens. And that’s what all of our products are designed to do.