It’s in the air we breathe. It’s found in the arctic ice and the remotest parts of the deep sea. It’s proven to be in our foods: honey, water, salt, beer. And it is located in our bodies: Microplastic – tiny toxic plastic particles (<5mm) that continuously break into smaller pieces and pass cell membranes and the blood brain barrier. It’s one of the biggest environmental problems of our time.
Once in the environment, the tiny plastic pieces accumulate pollutants such as heavy metals. They are consumed by aquatic organisms, resulting in infections, reproductive problems, and starvation – problems that work their way up the food chain. Indications that microplastics not only harm nature, but also humans are overwhelming.
Microplastics can not only be found in aquatic systems. They are also in the air and within the soil. Moreover, dust and dirt in our homes consist of up to 90% microplastics. These particles accumulate in cleaning water, are emptied unfiltered into sink or toilette and end up in nature.
Larger plastic pieces, such as packaging, which somehow end up in nature, degrade into smaller pieces and become microplastic over time. Around 50% of the plastic produced worldwide is used only once and thrown away. Bags, cutlery, straws, takeaway cups etc. are often only used for minutes, but pollute our environment for decades and even centuries. It’s urgent to avoid single use plastic whenever possible. The rest needs to be collected and recycled. So far, this hasn’t been achieved, as can be seen on any given beach or city.
Where does it come from?
Synthetic textiles are one of the main sources of microplastic pollution and account for 35% of all microplastics. With each wash, countless plastic fibers are making their way from washing machines into rivers and oceans. Once in the environment, they accumulate pollutants and are consumed by aquatic organisms, which leads to infections, diseases and starvation! Moreover these pollutants make their way up the food chain onto our plates. According to a study by the University of California at Santa Barbara, a city the size of Berlin releases a wash-related volume of microfibers equivalent to approx. 500,000 plastic bags - every single day.
Microplastic in cosmetics, so-called microbeads are found in countless personal care products: shower gels, soaps, sunscreens, moisturizers, etc. We absorb the tiny particles over our skin. They are washed down the drain, enter the ocean and end up in our sushi. First countries start to ban microbeads, but there are still a lot of liquid plastics found in our products.
A significant part of microplastic in our environment originates from the abrasion of tires and shoe soles. These particles can’t be filtered out. They are in the air and end up in the ocean. Abrasion of shoe soles and tires is causing more than 2.2 lbs (1kg) of plastic particles per year and person (source: Fraunhofer Institute) and are found in the remotest areas of the planet.
Source: IUCN 2017