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What are microplastics?

Microplastics are plastic debris that is less than five millimeters in length as defined by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). They come from a variety of sources including larger plastic that has been broken down into smaller pieces, and manufactured polyethylene plastic that is used as exfoliants in health and beauty products. 

Where are microplastics found?

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), microplastics have been found in the ocean since the early 1970s. 

More recently, scientists have found microplastics almost everywhere in the world, including in freshly fallen Antarctic snow. Likely sources are believed to be research stations but could have origins from up to 3,700 miles away. Finding microplastics in remote areas shows how widespread pollution is and can travel, impacting ecosystems all around the world. 

Microplastics aren’t only found in ecosystems, but in living beings as well. Microplastics have recently been found in the lungs of living people and human blood prior to this discovery as well. The microplastics were found in the deep parts of the lungs and were identified to originate from bottles, packaging, clothing, and other sources. Studies have found microplastics in human placenta, possibly from the carrier’s bloodstream and lungs.  

Microplastics have not only been found in humans but in marine animals as well. You may be used to seeing news about marine animals wrapped in plastic, but they are also ingesting it which may be another source of human ingestion of microplastics through food.

Are microplastics bad?

When ingested, microplastics can be fatal to marine life according to Yale experts. A study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 2019 found that humans may be ingesting up to 5 grams of microplastics (the equivalent of a credit card) per week. However, impacts on human health are not known yet, but knowledge of particulate matter pollution inhaled affecting the respiratory and cardiovascular systems suggests similar problems may exist long term.

Plastic pollution impacts more than just humans. Researchers estimate that one-third of plastic waste ends up in soils or freshwaters where it can negatively impact soil and fauna health and function. Plastics that contain harmful chemicals can contaminate soil and groundwater, leading to contamination in other nearby water sources and the ecosystem as a whole. 

What can we do?

UNEP reports that 400 million metric tonnes of plastic waste are produced every year. About 36 percent of plastics produced are used for packaging and most (85 percent) end up in landfills. 

When purchasing products we can be conscious about the type of packaging and the materials that the products are made of. Opt for products packaged in recyclable packaging or non-plastic materials.

When shopping for produce, consider bringing your own reusable produce bags instead of single-use plastic bags at the grocery store. Additionally, bring your own reusable bags for your groceries as well! 

If clean tap water is available to you, try not to buy single-use water bottles. Opt for reusable water filters to purify your water and buy a reusable water bottle for when you are on the go.

For products like soap, shampoo, detergent, and other household products, there are alternatives that eliminate plastic packaging. For example, bar soaps that come in recyclable paper can be an economical alternative. If you prefer liquid soaps, there are stores where you can refill your own bottles, which reduces single-use plastic, or choose solid soap concentrates that dissolve in water to create liquid soaps. These are just a few of the many ways that you can eliminate plastic waste in your household.

Plastic can be unavoidable, so try your best to buy products that are recyclable (check with your local recycling facility to see what plastics can be recycled near you) or contain recycled materials.