UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

How Are Microplastics Polluting the Environment?

Microplastics are in our oceans, air, food, and more. We explain what microplastics are and how they impact the health of our Earth and ourselves.
Posted on
August 18, 2022
How Are Microplastics Polluting the Environment?

The debate over the perils of plastic on our environment has long been established. It’s what led grocery stores to charge for plastic bags, the rise of paper straws and bamboo toothbrushes, and demand for glass storage containers. Cutting your use of plastic, or better yet, living plastic-free, is a simple and practical way to combat climate change. These are, of course, plastics that we can see. But what about all the plastics that are so small that we cannot even see them? 

Microplastics are so small that it’s only recently that researchers have begun to realize their impact on the environment. 

It turns out, microplastics are far more ubiquitous than ever imagined and more studies are needed to assess the environmental and health risks of microplastic pollution.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are plastic particles measuring less than five millimetres, making them remarkably undetectable to the naked eye and easily swept across huge distances by wind and through the sea. Microplastics are added to many of our everyday products such as microfibres for clothing and microbeads for printer ink and even facial cleansers. Made specifically for commercial uses, these particles are considered primary microplastics.

Secondary microplastics, however, result from the breakdown of larger plastic products like food wrappers and shampoo bottles. What’s alarming is how microplastics are appearing just about everywhere researchers look—from mountain tops to ocean depths, and even inside humans.

Microplastics, like any plastic, can take hundreds or thousands of years to decompose. With almost 400 million tonnes of plastics produced each year—a number expected to double by 2050—the effects of microplastics will only compound. Nanoplastics (smaller than one micrometre or 0.001 millimetres), which are broken down from microplastics, have been discovered in ecosystems, adding even more complexity to the problem. 

How and where do microplastics spread?

Despite the calls to reduce our reliance on plastics (especially single-use), demand has not abated. In 2019, Canada produced about 1.9 million tonnes of plastic packaging of which only 12 per cent was sent for recycling (and even less actually turned into something new). Around the world, single-use plastics account for 40 per cent of the plastic produced each year. 

Unfortunately, many plastics find their way to the coastlines and, eventually, into the ocean as pollution. The combined effects of sea, wind, and sunlight break plastic down into secondary microplastics. As the plastics shrink, they’re more easily transported and have been found, well, everywhere researchers have looked for them. Microplastics are found in marine life, municipal drinking water, and the air we breathe, as well as across all geographic regions, even the most remote—from the Arctic Ocean to Mount Everest.

The sources of microplastics are countless and often surprising, if not baffling. Washing our clothes, for instance, can release microplastics that “shed” from synthetic fabrics into waterways and eventually oceans.

A recent study also discovered humans ingest the equivalent of one plastic credit card every week in their diet through seafood, sea salt, drinking water and even plastic food containers which shed microplastics into the food they store—at even higher amounts when heated. Tiny plastic particles have been found in humans’ lungs and blood. 

Are microplastics harmful to humans? 

While scientists can confirm the presence of plastic particles in humans, they’re less certain about the harm they cause. One study indicates the presence of nanoplastics may disrupt the human gut bacteria and could  lead to more serious health impacts. However, scientists generally agree more research is needed. 

How can we reduce the amount of microplastics entering ecosystems? 

Reducing or eliminating single-use plastics is one of the most obvious ways to slow the rate at which microplastics enter ecosystems since these are quickly discarded and, oftentimes, never actually recycled. The cultural shift that values Earth-friendly practices over convenience is growing among many sustainable brands. As well, more governments (including Canada) have set target dates to ban single use plastics. Better wastewater management systems and recycling programs may also help ensure plastics are diverted safely or recycled into new products. 

What can you do to avoid microplastics?

While some single-use plastics offer tremendous benefits to society—from medical advancements to extending the shelf life of food—there are plenty of ways you can reduce your own reliance on them. By adjusting your day-to-day routines, you can help minimize your exposure. These practices can help prevent microplastics from entering ecosystems like the ocean and your own body. 

1. Prepare your food in glass or metal containers

Plastic containers typically shed microplastics into the food it holds, and the rate of shedding increases when the container is heated. If possible, swap your plastic bowls and storage containers for glass or metal, and avoid microwaving food in anything that’s plastic. 

2. Buy clothing made with natural fabrics

While there are many wonderful attributes to our synthetic fabrics from wrinkle-free pants to odour-free tops, when it’s time to add to your wardrobe consider pieces made with natural fabrics, instead. 

3. Filter your load of laundry

You can help prevent microplastics from leaching out of your clothes and into municipal waterways through your washing machine with the addition of a microfibre filter, such as LUV-R. Other options available include microfibre bags or laundry balls that can also filter microplastics in the wash. 

4. Reduce or eliminate single-use plastics

Most of us use single-use plastics, whether out of convenience or lack of alternatives. From takeout containers to grocery bags to shampoo bottles, there are countless ways to reduce your reliance on them with refillable containers, re-usable bags, and package-free goods (think bars of soap over liquid hand soap).

5. Drink tap water instead of bottled water

Research has shown those who drink water from a plastic bottle, rather than the tap, ingest more microplastics. Unfortunately, the same research indicates you can’t completely avoid plastics even in your municipal water, but some water filters can be installed that remove microplastics, so consider investing in one for your kitchen (or your entire house).

6. Avoid personal care products made with microbeads

More than 500 microplastic ingredients are used in cosmetics and personal care products to perform functions such as exfoliation or peeling. Unfortunately, it can be hard to decipher which ingredient is actually plastic. Keep it simple by sticking to products that list only natural ingredients.

Making choices that help the Earth

Microplastic pollution impacts just about every facet of the Earth and, unfortunately today there are no quick and easy solutions. As research on the effects of microplastics on ecosystems and humans continues, we will learn better ways to manage our use of plastics in everyday life. While avoiding all plastic is impossible for most of us, there are plenty of ways we can limit its use by making sustainable choices that benefit ourselves, our community, and our Earth. 

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Danielle Leonard
Written By
Danielle Leonard

Danielle Leonard is a lifestyle writer and editor based in the GTA whose favourite earth-loving pastimes are tending to her vegetable gardens, riding her bike and advocating against urban sprawl.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

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