Whether it’s banning plastic straws or bringing a keep cup on next your coffee run, we’re becoming more aware of how much plastic we use and its impact on the environment around us. More recently, microplastics have become the next environmental issue, with research suggesting that these tiny pieces of plastic are now present in the ocean, soil, and animals.

So, what are microplastics?

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that are anywhere from 5mm to 1 micrometre in size - that’s one-thousandth of a millimetre and the size of a single Y chromosome! Often, microplastics start out as larger pieces of plastic, such as plastic bags and the nylon and polyester materials used to make everything from athletic wear and swimmers to imitation leather products. Even smaller products such as golf balls, plastic straws, and toothbrushes can contribute to plastic - and microplastic - pollution.

As clothing and other products age, whether it's through continued use or exposure to the elements after we throw them away, the plastics break down into fibres, and when we wash clothes these fibres can enter and contaminate our waterways. While clothes made from natural fibres such as wool and cotton do this too, the fibres produced are biodegradable. In fact, according to the MERMAIDS Life+ project, the three biggest contributors to microplastic pollution are acrylic, nylon, and polyester, and Plymouth University researchers have found that a single item of acrylic clothing can lose almost 730,000 fibres in one wash.

Cosmetic products contain microplastics in the form of microbeads -  tiny pieces of plastic that are made from polystyrene and a range of other synthetic polymers. Found in everything from face scrubs and toothpaste to sunscreens and shampoos, microbeads are typically used as abrasives that can make our skin and teeth feel cleaner or as bulking agents. But, while we may feel cleaner, products containing are pretty big contributors to microplastic pollution too. In fact, researchers from Plymouth University in the UK have found that a 150mL bottle of face scrub can contain up to 2.8 million beads!

From the bin to the dinner table: why microplastic pollution matters

Because microplastics are so small, they can be absorbed by humans and other animals, including aquatic organisms. In fact, microplastics have been reported as the largest source for plastic debris found in marine environments and can take centuries to fully decompose.

In the case of microbeads and microplastics from clothes, these tiny particles enter our wastewater systems and are either captured in sewage sludge or end up in our rivers and oceans after the wastewater is treated. In fact, there are more than 42 sites across the coasts of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Hobart where high concentrations of microplastics have been found by researchers from the University of Tasmania.

Recent research has found microplastics and plastic fibres on the deep sea floor and in the digestive systems of amphipods (small crustacean-like animals found on seabeds) at a higher percentage than in organisms found closer to the ocean surface. While amphipods may be tiny, when they are eaten by other organisms the microplastics in their stomach can end up in the stomach of the other organism. This process can repeat all the way up the food chain and is called bioaccumulation, resulting in humans and other large animals consuming microplastics.

In fact, recent studies have found microplastics in marine mammals such as dolphins and whales, birds, the larvae of flying insects, and even human stool.  The presence of microplastics in animals has been found to place stress on organs such as the liver, and may even be a cause of death in marine mammals. And while other investigations into the extent of microplastic contamination have found microplastics in tap water samples from across the world and even in soft drinks in Italy, the effects of microplastics on human health aren’t well-known yet and requires further research.

With over 51 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans, of which 90% is microscopic, finding ways to reduce our plastic footprint is becoming more and more urgent. For more ocean facts and microplastics in a kid-friendly style, check out Modern Fish.

Easy steps to reduce plastic usage

Ultimately, we can reduce the amount of microplastics that end up in our environment and wildlife by reducing our overall use of plastic, especially when it comes to single-use plastics such as coffee cups and packaging. By now we all know to remember our reusable shopping bags or keep cups when we do the weekly shop or grab a coffee, and the increasing availability of reusable items such as straws, food packaging and toothbrushes are making it easier for us to reduce our plastic waste. But there are even more steps that we can take as individuals, and as a wider community, to reduce our contribution to plastic pollution.

With companies such as Ethique, who provide an alternative to plastic bottles of shampoo and conditioner in the form of beauty bars, and Three Mamas, who make biodegradable and reusable beauty products (and glitter!), there is an increasing number of companies that we can support as consumers. Not to mention that Coles no longer sells cosmetics containing microplastics and Woolworths and ALDI products are now microplastic-free too. Plus, you can find out which products are microplastic-free with The Good Scrub Guide’s guide or Beat the Microbead, whose app also lets you scan products and find out their microbead status on-the-go.

However, when it comes to fashion, it can be hard to avoid clothes made from synthetic fabrics, especially since 75% of new fashion is made from plastics. In fact, the fashion industry comes in second to oil as the biggest global pollutor, and 85% of textiles bought in Australia end up in landfill every year. And whether you shop online or prefer to try before you buy, choosing products made from natural fibres is the best way to go. Plus, with more and more brands adopting sustainable practices when it comes to the fabrics they use we’re getting a wider range of choice, such as Adidas, who sold shoes made from recycled plastic waste taken from oceans in 2017, and those who source their fabric from ECONYL®, who produce yarn made from recycled nylon fishing nets, which is then used to create clothes, carpets, and even car upholstery. If price is a deterrent, organising clothes swaps with friends and family or buying clothes second-hand from Vinnies, Lifeline or your local markets can be a more sustainable way to revitalise your wardrobe on the cheap.

But what about the spandex, nylon, and acrylic clothing that’s already taking up space in your wardrobe? While replacing them with new, biodegradable clothing is one good option, you can also use products like the Guppyfriend washing bag, which minimises the amount of plastic fibres that end up in waterways when you wash your clothes

The Big Picture

Whether it’s the clothes we buy, food we eat, or packaging we throw away, we’re becoming more aware of just how much we waste we produce. And as we become more aware of the long-lasting presence of microplastics in our water and animals, we should continue to look for ways to recycle, reuse, and replace the plastics that we use in everyday life.

Further Reading

If you’d like to find out more about the community groups and researchers currently combating plastic pollution, check out these links:

Take 3 for the Sea

Ten for the Ocean

UNSW researcher propels textile industry towards sustainable fabric

University of Sydney researcher creates recyclable plastics

Terracycle recycles hard-to-recycle waste