Microplastics: a not so micro-issue
When we think of plastic pollution, discarded crisp packets and empty drinks cans in the park tend to come to mind first. Especially with all the sunny weather we’ve been (sort of) having. Cleaning up the spaces around us with community litter picks or beach clean ups is a great way to not only feel good about yourself, but to also take care of the world around us.
But what about the smaller, almost invisible, pieces of plastic pollution that we can’t see? Hello, microplastics.
In the words of Marvin Gaye: ain't no mountain high enough, ain't no valley low enough. Microplastics have been found from the highest points on Earth, all the way down to the depths of the ocean – and in massive numbers.
In the seas alone there are more than 51 trillion microplastic particles, which is 500 times more stars than in our galaxy. A recent study revealed that they're found in at least 4% of the air we breathe (and goes all the way up to a shocking 77% in some areas).
Although these pieces of plastic waste are pretty tiny (less than 5 mm is the rule of thumb), that doesn't mean that their impact is something to be ignored.
Photo courtesy of Sören Funk on Unsplash.
Microplastics can be massively damaging to biodiversity, especially in our oceans. From minuscule algae to seals and dolphins, microplastics have been reported to cause a whole host of diseases, as well as issues with their growth and behaviour.
It turns out that microplastics can find their way into human food chains too. They show up in 99% of the fish we eat and 80% of the water we drink. Each person is thought to be consuming (and breathing in) tens of thousands of microplastics every year. The smallest pieces could even be starting to accumulate inside of our cells. Yikes.
But the problem isn’t with plastic. As a material, it’s been a game-changing innovation that has allowed the modern world to thrive – in science, in our homes and for numerous other great things. The problem lies in the sheer volume of single-use plastic being produced and chucked, and in many cases, without any need at all (do bananas really need to be sold in a plastic bag when they already have a skin on them to protect them? That’s bananas).
Another sneaky culprit that we see all too often are typical plastic sponges. These shed microplastics straight down the sink every time they’re used. And with over 400 million plastic sponges used per year in the UK alone – that's pretty bonkers too.
The fast fashion industry is another huge player, responsible for a whopping 35% of the primary microplastics being let go into the ocean, alongside 92 million tonnes of waste per year. These microplastics mostly come from the washing of synthetic materials, which sends plastic fibres (like acrylic and polyester) into our waterways.
Are you so sure about that, Aqua?
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Although the iconic Aqua lyrics “life in plastic, it’s fantastic” may fall short in reading the room in 2022, there’s definitely a lot of good that’s being done to combat the issues created by microplastics. Researchers in Texas have discovered that they can use okra to remove microplastics from wastewater whilst trials in Plymouth have been looking at how mussels can help in cleaning up our oceans by filter feeding.
In even more topical news, reality TV show ‘Love Island’ have had their ‘head turned’ and announced that they will be dropping their fast-fashion sponsorship this year, with pre-loved powerhouse eBay set to replace the brand partnership instead.
Even better, the United Nations approved the world’s first ever global plastic pollution treaty in March. This agreement looks to change the way businesses and governments approach the production of plastic for the future. With more and more individuals and groups taking it upon themselves to lead conversations and find solutions, positive change is on the horizon.
So herein lies the question. What can we actually do to help solve the problem?
There’s lots of small (but mighty) things we can do to help out our ocean-dwelling pals. Making more sustainable seafood choices (or not eating it at all); being careful with how we dispose of waste that is dangerous to marine life (like cat litter); being an ocean-friendly visiter when at the beach; and, of course, supporting great organisations that work to maintain marine biodiversity. Here's one great one to get us started: the Marine Conservation Society.
And for making changes at home? Cutting down on consuming single-use plastics (where you can), as well as reusing and upcycling plastics around the house to increase their lifespan are all great places to start off. And when you’ve run out of creative ideas? We’ve got a Thing for that.
Whether you’re ready to switch to our 100% plastic free dishwasher tabs (compared to some ‘eco’ brands that still wrap theirs in plastic) or give our cellulose, home compostable, zero micro-plastic sponges a go, you can clean up your home without making a mess of the planet. Look at you multi-tasking away. It’s a good look on you.
Is refill the way forward?