Seven ways you’re creating microplastic pollution (and poisoning yourself in the process)

A lot of microplastic pollution goes under the radar. It is closer to us and more pervasive than we realise. Microplastics might not be such a bad thing in some products if they stayed where they were supposed to, but the problem is they don’t. With wear and tear, many ‘stealth’ microplastics used in manufacturing other larger items are released into our environment — including our oceans and our air. They are entering our bodies via the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. And they are present in their millions.

By now most people have heard of microplastics. These are plastic particles <5mm in size that may either be made that size e.g. microbeads, or may be fragments of larger pieces. Most of us are probably also aware they’re entering our food chain. But maybe what most people don’t know is that they are creating and exposing themselves to microplastic pollution every day.

Last year a European study found microplastics in human poo samples, from people who live pretty much the same lifestyle as you or me. But is this surprising given the amount of plastic we are using? While we’ve started seeing bans on some single-use plastics, the fact is plastic bags, straws and coffee cups are just the tip of the iceberg. Actually, they’re just the tip of the tip. Every year, Europe releases a bulk amount of microplastics SIX TIMES BIGGER than the Great Pacific garbage patch. And that’s just Europe!

Maybe you’re thinking “Well if I’m crapping it out that means it’s not harming me right?”. Wrong! First, if it is a toxic form of plastic like PVC, polycarbonate or polystyrene, it could leach chemicals into your body while it’s moving through you. Second, pollutants love plastic, including all the SUPER-toxic, carcinogenic ones like DDT that were banned 50 years ago (no they haven’t miraculously disappeared, that’s why they were banned and are now known as Persistent Organic Pollutants or POPs). Plastic collects these pollutants from our environment like a magnet attracts ball bearings. And when we ingest microplastics via seafood, sea salt, honey, beer, tap water, bottled water, etc. we are also ingesting the toxic chemicals attached to them. Third, there are studies that indicate microplastics may damage our gut.

And as if microplastics weren’t enough, now there are nanoplastics. These are plastic particles and fibres <100nm in size. This is WAY smaller than a human hair. A particular concern with nanoplastics is they may penetrate our cells and move from our gut into our bloodstream. And here’s the thing: both micro and nanoplastics are not only found in our oceans but are also in the air we breathe. A study of microplastics in dust showed that adults inhale over 1,000 plastic particles a year, and children around THREE TIMES this amount (babies are most vulnerable because they spend a lot of time on the floor where a lot of dust collects). Once microplastic particles have entered our lungs they may remain there forever, and once they reach a certain concentration may cause infections. I don’t know about you but I find this SCARY.

I’m wondering what it will take for people to realise the environment is not ‘out there’. We live IN it. And that is why we can’t throw our waste ‘away’. There is no ‘away’!!! For decades we’ve been crapping in our own nest and now our carelessness is finally catching up with us (while it’s a pretty big nest, it’s a finite one nonetheless).

Here are seven forms of microplastic pollution you could be contributing to:

1. Tyres — wear and tear of vehicle tyres contributes a HUGE amount to the microplastics entering our environment. Tyres consist mostly of synthetic rubber (essentially plastic), derived from styrene (a known carcinogen) and butadiene. The average global emission is almost 1kg per person per year and contributes significantly to air pollution (where it enters our lungs) and water pollution (where it enters our food chain). Tyres account for 5–10% of ocean plastic pollution and 3–7% of particulate matter in our air.

2. Paint — acrylic paints (which most paints are unfortunately) used in outdoor environments including buildings, road markings and boats release plastic particles as they degrade and this ends up in waterways, our oceans and our air. Also, when you wash paintbrushes and rollers all those plastic particles are ending up in the ocean.

3. Synthetic clothing — chances are your wardrobe contains clothing with at least some proportion of acrylic, nylon, polyester or similar synthetic fabrics. Almost 2/3 of our clothing contains synthetic fibres. Washing synthetic clothing releases microfibres into waterways/oceans and even just wearing it releases these fibres into the air. MILLIONS of these plastic fibres can be released in every single wash.

4. Carpets, furniture, toys, cleaning cloths — According to Plastic Soup Foundation, almost 1/3 of fibres in the air are plastic. Most microplastics contaminating the air inside our homes are plastic fibres released from synthetic clothing and home furnishings. Children’s toys, especially the soft, fluffy variety, are also generally made from synthetic materials, and when it comes to cleaning, it appears we’re in the age of microfibre. Any cleaning item I go to buy these days, whether it’s a cloth, scourer, mop, duster, etc. is made from microfibre. Yeh it’s great that we’re using less chemicals (greenwash alert!) but what about all the microplastics entering the ocean instead???

Could home furnishings be polluting your air with plastic microfibres?

5. Beauty & cleaning products —Several years ago it was discovered thousands of tonnes of microbeads (tiny plastic beads used in products like exfoliants and toothpastes, many made of toxic plastics) were ending up in the marine environment. While these have now been banned in various countries these bans mostly apply to only rinse-off cosmetics, so many other products, including makeup products, are still allowed to contain microplastics (so maybe hold your breath next time you’re applying eyeshadow or foundation). And as if invisible plastic ingredients aren’t enough, plastic is also used to make glitter, which seems to be a popular fashion accessory these days.

To my horror I recently discovered I was in possession of a product that contains microplastics. Admittedly, it was a few years old (I recently dug it out of the bathroom drawer so I could use it up) and it appears this company has reformulated the product now, but it really made me more aware as a consumer, that just because you purchase a ‘natural’ cosmetic product from a health food store, doesn’t mean it’s plastic-free.

Nylon is just one of many microplastics used in cosmetics

6. Dental composites — Diurethane dimethacrylate, bisphenol-A polyethylene glycol diether dimethacrylate, bisphenol-A diglycidyl ether dimethacrylate, polyethylene glycol dimethacrylate — substances you’ve probably never heard of but quite possibly have in your body. These are just four of the ingredients in a dental composite made by 3M, a brand used by many dentists. Most dental composites used today contain plastic in the form of methacrylates, and many contain the toxic chemical BPA. Fillings may degrade over time due to chewing and other factors, releasing chemical substances into our body. So that means the plastics from the composites are entering our bodies too.

7. Tea bags — while I had been composting teabags for years I discovered last year that most teabags contain plastic (polypropylene), apparently for strength and also to enable heat fusion of the ones without a string. So if you compost your food waste tea bags break up into smaller pieces creating microplastics in your garden soil.

Gradually we are starting to see action to address the plastic pollution issue, including microplastics. Over the last few years, the US and UK amongst a number of other countries have introduced bans on plastic microbeads used in cosmetics and just last week the EU proposed a ban on 90% of microplastic pollutants currently used in a range of products including cosmetics, detergents, paints and fertilisers.

While that might sound like good news, it represents VERY slow, VERY fragmented action on a VEEEEEERRRRRRRRRRYYYYYY MASSIVE and SERIOUS problem. And this slow action is threatening the future of our planet and the very existence of homo sapiens (yes we are just another species, ultimately as vulnerable as the rest of them, not some invincible super-power. Makes you wonder why we don’t display a bit more humility doesn’t it?).

Clearly we don’t have the time to wait for governments and industry to address these issues, but what I’m convinced will be our ticket out of this nightmare is learning the truth about the impact of our actions and then making better choices. So here’s how you can avoid creating micro- and nano-plastic pollution:

  • Drive your car less. As far as avoiding tyres, walking and the train seem to be the best options. Also, when you need to replace the tyres on your vehicle choose the most durable ones available (unfortunately this probably means trading in your sports car).
  • Buy natural paint. Whether you’re painting inside or outside you’re still going to be washing out brushes or rollers afterwards (= microplastic pollution). This is also a good reason to choose a roller made from natural materials as they are another source of synthetic microfibres. Beware of greenwashing and know that VOC-free, low-VOC or eco-friendly doesn’t necessarily mean plastic-free. Instead look for words like ‘natural’ and ‘biodegradable’. Added bonuses of using natural paints: 1) No toxic VOCs polluting your home 2) Acrylic paints trap moisture inside walls, which can cause issues with dampness and bubbling or flaking of paint whereas plastic-free paints are breathable, enabling any moisture to dry out. In Australia, Eco At Home has a good selection of natural paints. In the US brands include Auro and Unearthed and in the UK, there is Auro and Earthborn, while Greenshop also has a selection.
Natural, plastic-free paint (image: Earthborn)
  • Buy natural fabrics — whether it’s clothing, cushions, rugs, carpets, a new lounge suite, soft toys or cleaning cloths, look for natural fabrics like hemp, linen, bamboo, wool, organic cotton and jute. For synthetic clothing and items you already have and want to keep, use a Cora Ball or Guppy Friend in the wash to collect plastic microfibres. For those you don’t want to keep unfortunately landfill is probably the safest place for them.
  • Check the ingredients list on cosmetics, including body wash and toothpaste. If they contain any of the following DO NOT buy them: Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), Nylon or Polyamide (PA), Polystyrene (PS), Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). If you already have products containing these ingredients (or any others that sound similar), stop using them and take them to your City’s chemical drop-off location for safe disposal (or even landfill is a better option than down the drain). Buy natural cosmetics and cleaning products (they’re better for you too!). When it comes to glitter, choose a plastic-free and biodegradable brand like GLITTEREVOLUTION or EcoStardust.
Plastic-free and biodegradable glitter (image: GLITTEREVOLUTION)
  • Next time you need to get a filling ask your dentist for a natural composite like Admira Fusion (the world’s first purely ceramic-based restorative material).
  • Buy loose leaf tea in bulk or in a metal tin (although it’s hard to find the latter without any plastic packaging these days).

While I’m scared for our future I’m also excited. How we react to this global crisis over the coming years will reveal whether our greed has surpassed our intelligence. But I’m rooting for the masses, who are gradually realising this earth is our common nest and are beginning to take more responsibility for their actions. And I’m counting on us pushing the greedy few off their thrones and taking our planet back. Are you with me???

Are you as concerned as I am about how micro- and nano-plastics could be affecting your health (not to mention our planet’s future)? Does knowing this, and how you contribute to plastic pollution, motivate you to get disposable plastic out of your life? I’d love to know the answers to these questions so please let me know in the comments.

Sustainability educator & activist, founder @ Earth Ethic

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