Microplastics are defined as pieces of plastic that are less than 5 millimeters (mm) in length. These microplastics can be found almost anywhere, from the oceans, to our soil, even in the air around us. Turtles, fish, seabirds, and other marine organisms do not recognize them as harmful and easily ingest them. These microplastics will accumulate in the creature’s stomach until they become so full of the plastic that they cannot eat anymore, and oftentimes die from starvation.
So where do these microplastics come from? They originate from two main sources. Primary microplastics are particles that are already less then 5.0 mm in length before they enter into our environment. These include microfibers from our clothing, microbeads, and plastic pellets. Secondary microplastics are plastics that used to be large items such as plastic bottles, bags, food wrappers, and straws, but have been broken down over time into smaller objects. These plastics also cause a problem for marine organisms that try to ingest them.
There have been some policies that have been put into place that have helped the reduction of the amount of microplastics accumulating in our oceans. In the United States, the Obama administration enacted the Microbead-Free Waters Act in 2015, which banned the addition of plastic microbeads in exfoliating products, such as toothpaste or face wash, because these types of products oftentimes end up washing down drains that end up in our oceans and pollute our environment. Countries such as Italy, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom have also followed suit and enacted their own policies.
However, these policies do not cover all dangers posed by microplastics. The Microbead-Free Water act does not include a prohibition on other products, such as make-up and cleaning products, that might contain microbeads. There’s also microfibers in our clothing to think about, made from materials that do not degrade, such as polyester, polyamide, and polypropylene, that fall out when being washed and up draining to our oceans as well.
As we mentioned, microplastics inevitably end up being ingested by marine organisms, which are feasted upon by larger marine organisms, which inevitably are fished out and consumed by us. This means that these microplastics will end up in our stomachs. To answer the question posed in the title of this article then, should we be concerned? The effect that these microplastics have on our health is still not well understood by researchers, but it would be better to play it safe than to risk our health. We should be concerned, and we should act to find a solution to reduce the amount of microplastics ending up in our oceans.
Considering that government policies do not totally prevent microplastics from ending up in our oceans, we must make conscious choices as consumers to avoid products that contain microplastics. When shopping for make-up, skin care, or cleaning products, make sure to read the ingredients on the label and avoid products with microbeads in them. For clothing, there are more and more clothing companies that now make their clothing out of recycled waste, or you can focus on clothes made from materials that degrade naturally in the environment such as cotton, linen, or wool.
And of course, make sure to reduce your single-use plastics, by using reusable options. Things like reusable bags, reusable straws, etc. Shop here for more ideas and options.