It’s no secret: plastic is a problem. It’s clogging up our water infrastructure, polluting our dams and oceans and has disastrous effects on wildlife. However, in recent years, scientists have become less concerned about the larger pieces of plastic floating in our oceans and littering our sidewalks. A far smaller element of plastic is cause for great concern among experts. They’re called micro- and nanoplastics and, while we can’t always see them with the naked eye, they are in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. They’re in their billions and researchers are only now beginning to witness the devastating extent of plastic pollution on a microscopic level.
LIMIT YOUR MICROPLASTICS CONTRIBUTION
While there’s no way to avoid microplastics entirely, you can make a few changes in your household to limit your exposure and the amount of plastics you add to the environment.
- Don’t heat your food in plastic containers. Due to the heat, the plastic breaks down, releasing microplastics into the food you eat.
- Where possible, buy unpackaged foods such as fresh vegetables and fruit.
- Use glass and reusable non-plastic containers to store food and beverages.
- Avoid using single-use plastics such as plastic shopping bags, plastic earbuds and plastic utensils.
- Invest in a water filter with a micron rating of 200 or less. It won’t catch all the plastic particles, but it will decrease the amount getting through.
- Read your clothing labels and try and buy only natural, eco-friendly clothing when possible.
- Use a laundry ball to catch some of the microfibers from clothing during each wash. A more expensive option is to install a laundry filter.
- Only use a tumble dryer when necessary as the drying process leads to clothes shedding vast amounts of microfibers that are released into the air and our water systems. Rather air dry your laundry.
- Check the pressure of your tyres regularly to ensure less tyre wear.
- Although banned in many beauty products, it’s best to avoid using any products which contain microbeads.
UNEXPECTED SOURCES OF MICROPLASTICS
Aside from rubber, most tyres also contain about 60% of styrene butadiene, a type of plastic. Due to friction, heat and pressure from driving, tyres get worn down, releasing plastic dust particles in the process. It’s estimated around 10% to 28% of all microplastics are derived from tyres.
Most of the clothing and fabrics in our homes are made from acrylic and polyester which shed hundreds of thousands of microfibers as we wear and wash them. These microfibers are so tiny that they easily get through most filters, landing up in our tap water and the oceans.
It might surprise you, but tennis balls also contribute to the microplastics being found more often in our water sources and the air we breathe. The outer fuzzy layer of a tennis ball is made of polyethylene terephthalate, a kind of thermoplastic polymer used in packaging, clothing and several other materials. As with tyres, the tennis ball fibres are worn down over time and released in to the air.
Laundry and Dishwasher Pods and Tablets
From detergents containing microbeads to dishwasher pods wrapped in a water-soluble synthetic polymer – all of these contribute to the microplastics crisis. Look for an environmentally friendly detergent instead.
Think twice the next time you decide to flick your cigarette butt on the ground. Not only do they seep out toxins including nicotine, but the filter contains a non-biodegradable plastic which sheds microfibers over time. Cigarette butts are the single most collected item in beach clean-ups.
It might look pretty, but glitter is made from polyethylene terephthalate and polyvinyl chloride film which are extremely difficult to dispose of properly. The next time you want to add some sparkle to your child’s school project, perhaps consider buying a biodegradable plant-based glitter.
Whether it’s a wet wipe, hand wipe or make-up remover wipe, they’re all contributors of microplastics. Containing various forms of polymers such as polyester, polyethelene and polypropylene, these wipes do not degrade. Instead, they end up not only blocking drains, but also continuously shedding countless plastic fibres.
Don’t be fooled! Just because it looks like a simple paper teabag, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good for the environment. Many teabags contain up to 25% plastic and a recent study by the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Environmental Science and Technology found that steeping a single teabag in hot water could release up to 11.6 billion microplastic particles, and 3.1 billion nanoplastic particles into a single cup. Try and opt for a more natural teabag (you can ask the manufacturer) or use loose tea leaves instead.
Research has shown that vast amounts of microplastics found in the oceans originate from thermoplastic paints often used to paint road markings, ships and houses. If you’re looking for a more eco-friendly paint, try using a product that contains linseed oil or latex as a binding agent instead.
Many of us love a good cup of coffee in the morning and often grab our early-morning brew from a nearby coffee shop. But even though these cups are seemingly made from paper, they do contain levels of plastic. The “paper” cups are lined with polyethylene which takes about 20 years to decompose.
Sources: International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health | American Chemical Society’s Journal of Environmental Science and Technology