What are microplastics? The shortest answer, which lacks no accuracy, is small plastic particles in the environment, mainly our oceans. How small is small? According to the U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, less than 5 mm in diameter. Where do microplastics come from? The answer is considerably longer, but ultimately any product that is made of plastic. Plastic bags, bottles, toys, tools, straws, cups, plates, industrial processes, exfoliants and clothing.
Primary microplastics are manufactured to be small and have three main sources. One is micro-beads or "scrubbers" created for the cosmetics industry to replace natural exfoliants such as crushed nut shells, oatmeal, pumice, sugar and sea salt. The second source is air blasting technology. This involves blasting acrylic, melamine or polyester microplastic scrubbers at machinery, engines and boat hulls to remove rust and paint. Because these scrubbers are used repeatedly, their size is diminished and their cutting power is lost over time. As they enter the environment, they are often contaminated with heavy metals like cadmium, chromium, and even lead.
The third source, which until recently has not been considered, is clothing. Petroleum based fabrics and fibers to be exact. Nylon, Acrylic, Microfiber, Spandex and the most popular and widely used, Polyester (including recycled polyester), are significant contributors. If this seams a bit dramatic, consider the following. There are now over 7.5 billion people on the planet, and that number is quickly growing. It is safe to say that, if not every single one of us, almost all of us do laundry. Plastic fibers separate from clothing in the wash and escape into the environment during the rinse cycle.
In 2016 at the Plymouth University, PhD student Imogen E. Napper and professor Richard C. Thompson led a study to find out just how much synthetic clothing contributed to microplastic pollution. After several controlled experiments, they discovered that for every 13 pounds (6kg) of laundry could release over 700,000 fibers with the waste water.
Secondary microplastics fragments that have broken away from larger plastics, such as water bottles, plastic bags and countless other plastic products.
Talking about microplastics, for the average person, can seem like a far away problem. But it isn't. Let's put it into context that matters. Much of our food comes from the seas and oceans. Marine life, throughout the food chain has been ingesting plastics and plastic particles for decades, and so have we. Even those of us who are vegetarian and vegan, have, and perhaps more directly as researchers have discovered microplastics in sea salt. We have yet to understand the full scope of just how harmful this is to our health. If animals die from ingesting plastic, one thing is for sure, it can not possibly be healthy for us either.