You Are What You Eat...Everything You Need to Know About Microplastics
Did you know you eat thousands of bits of plastic every year? Abundant in water, air and the food we eat, research proves it’s not good for us but we don’t quite yet know exactly how it’s affecting our health.
This plastic we consume, is called microplastic.
What exactly is microplastic?
Microplastic is a very small piece of plastic, less than five millimeters long, it is not a specific type of plastic but rather any type of plastic fragment. The primary concern with microplastics is the different toxic and carcinogenic chemicals used in manufacturing these plastics.
Most microplastics are plastics that have degraded into smaller and smaller pieces from sources such as;
- large plastic debris (like disposable water bottles)
- tiny fibres from nylon clothes and synthetic textiles
- microbeads found in health and beauty products
What is microbeads?
Microbeads are a type of microplastic manufactured mostly from polyethylene plastic but can also be made from other petrochemical plastics such as polypropylene and polystyrene. It is found in exfoliating face and body scrubs, glittery make-up, toothpaste, soaps, shower gel... to name a few. Used to rub debris from the skin, microbeads first appeared in personal care products approximately fifty years ago, with plastics increasingly replacing natural ingredients.
The concern with microbeads is that they function in the same way a sponge does, absorbing toxic chemicals. The great news is, you can achieve the same result using natural ingredients that are readily available, healthier for the planet and do a better job.
Natural Microbead Alternatives
- Raw Honey (natural enzymes)
- Natural Clays
- Baking Soda
- Organic Oatmeal
- Organic Sugar (natural glycolic acid)
- Natural Sea Salt
- Ground Fruit Kernels
The US and several other countries, including Canada, France, New Zealand, Sweden, Taiwan and the United Kingdom have since banned microbeads from rinse-off cosmetics, but there is still a long way to go. The industry has previously pushed back against a broad ban on microplastics, arguing that replacing the materials would be technically challenging and expensive.
Look out for these ingredients on the back of products:
- Polyethylene (PE)
- Polypropylene (PP)
- Polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
Microplastics are too small to be caught in wastewater treatments systems so these tiny fragments of toxic plastic end up in our ocean where they are ingested by marine animals, ultimately ending up in our food chain.
Ingested microplastic can physically damage organs and leach hazardous chemicals, compromising immune function, growth and reproduction. Having microplastics in our food chain, potentially impacts whole ecosystems.
Microplastics are in the water we drink, the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the air we breathe.
A new study in the journal Environmental Science and Technology believes it's possible that humans may be consuming anywhere between 39,000 to 52,000 microplastic particles a year. The research also reviewed the amount of microplastics in the air and in the water we drink. It estimates, that combined with the microplastics we inhale, the number is more than 74,000 a year. Additionally, people who drank their recommended water intake through tap water ingest a further 4,000 plastic particles annually while those who drink only bottled water ingest an additional 90,000. The author of the report, Kieran Cox, expects the research underestimates the actual levels, and it's likely people are consuming far more.
This research also showed microfibres as the most commonly found type of plastic.
What is microfibres?
Microfibres shed from textiles like nylon and polyester. Most of us wear synthetic material (or plastic) like polyester and nylon every day with dresses, shirts, yoga pants, fleeces, and even underwear. Synthetic fabrics are produced entirely from chemicals whereas natural fabrics are made from plants and animals. Synthetic fabrics are used by fashion brands as they are cheaper, easier to dye and also offer consumer-friendly functions such as stretch and waterproofing.
But these synthetic fabrics, from which 60% of all clothing is made, have a bigger problem. When washed they release tiny plastic bits, called microfibres, into wastewaters that flow down our drains, through water treatment plants and out into our rivers, lakes and oceans...by the billions. These microfibres are too small to be caught in the wastewater treatment systems and once they enter our waterways they become ingested by marine life.
The great news is, through education and awareness of alternative fabrics, we can drastically reduce the amount of microfibres that are released into our waterways and ending up in our food chain.
Natural Fibre Alternatives
- Cotton or ideally Organic Cotton which is grown on farms using less water than cotton and where crops aren't treated with chemicals such as fertilizers or pesticides, is soft, lightweight, breathable, durable and easy to wash
- Silk - made from the cocoons of silkworms, is incredibly soft, strong, and keeps you cool when it’s warm and warm when it’s cool
- Linen - derived from the flax plant, is soft, strong, breathable, durable and cool
- Wool - made from the natural hair of a sheep, goat, or similar animal, is an excellent insulator. Merino Wool has become increasingly popular as it’s very soft, absorbent and breathable.
Naturally-derived Fibre Alternatives
- Bamboo - a fast growing sustainable resource, it is soft, lightweight and breathable
- New rayons (lycocell, Tencel, Modal, Micromodal) - derived from wood pulp, they are soft, breathable, naturally wrinkle-resistant, biodegradable and environmentally sustainable.
Although we often see images of wildlife gravely affected by plastic consumption, it’s likely, as research improves we’ll start to fully understand the full impact these microplastics are having on our own health and well being.
As consumers, we have the ability to drive change, but to do that, we need to be willing to make change. We can choose the future we want or we can continue being ignorant of what is happening around us and wait for the future to choose us.
Choose to be part of the solution to a healthier planet, and a healthier you.
Common polymers & ways they are used:
How often polymers are found in marine microplastic debris:
Source: Amanda Montañez, `Sources, Fate and Effects of Microplastics in the Marine Environment: A Global Assessment'
Photo: Viktor Forgacs, Unsplash