What are microplastics? Your complete guide to the dangers and how to avoid them

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  • The tiny plastics are more harmful than you’d imagine.

    Googling, “what are microplastics?” By now, you’ll likely have heard that there are microplastics in both the ocean and in humans, too. But how? Why? And since when? Plus, are they actually harmful?

    All good questions – so let’s start with the basics. As Madhuri Prabhaker, Beat the Microbead campaigner, explains, microplastics are loosely defined as plastic particles that are smaller than 5 mm.

    So why are they significant? Simply put, microplastic pollution is harming our oceans, soils, and bodies, too. We’re using more plastic than ever. According to Surfers Against Sewage, there are “approximately 51 trillion microscopic pieces of plastic, weighing 269,000 tons – about the same as 1345 adult blue whales or 500 times the number of stars in our galaxy.”

    Plus, a recent study found microplastics are in 80% of humans – but below, our team of eco-experts explain how to deal with them in your day-to-day life, plus how to avoid microplastics, too.

    What are microplastics?

    As above – tiny, minuscule beads of plastic that can be found in our ocean, food, and even bodies. As Phrabhaker explains, there are two different types:

    1. Secondary microplastics

    Secondary microplastics are likely the ones that first come to mind when you think of tiny plastics. They are all in the name, they are “bigger plastics breaking down into tiny pieces”.

    These are known as secondary microplastics “because they were not indented to end up like this. They broke down from bigger plastic items.”

    2. Primary microplastics

    Primary microplastics are the “not so obvious” sources of microplastic pollution.

    “They are called primary microplastics because they were intended to be manufactured in that size.” The microplastic size that is.

    “They are intentionally added to products such as cosmetics, personal care products, detergents, cleaning products, paints,” Prabhakar explains.

    Sustainability pro Ashlee Piper explains that “microplastics are the byproduct of industrial plastic waste and consumer plastic materials breaking down into small pieces or even smaller particles.”

    But, she also tells us there is an even smaller plastic to add to the list. “Nanoplastics are the even smaller version of this breakdown, usually found in the ocean and the air. That’s what makes these small particles so insidious – they’re literally everywhere and unavoidable.” 

    So, what are the side effects of microplastics?

    Aka, should we worry about microplastics? “Absolutely,” Piper tells us. “Plastic proliferation is one of the most challenging and harmful issues to people, animals, and the planet,” she explains.

     They’ve even found microplastics and still in-tact plastic bags and trash in the deepest known part of the world, the Mariana Trench, which is like 37,000 feet deep.

    Microplastics in the ocean

    Good question – and the stats are quite shocking. “One in three fish caught for human consumption contains plastic”, SAS website reveals.

    Prabhaker explains microplastics are damaging to marine life because marine animals often mistake them for food.

    While this is heartbreaking for the fish who feed on plastics, it is also damaging for us humans. Every day approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into our oceans, according to OSPAR.

    “They are passed along the marine food chain, and since humans are ultimately at the top of this food chain, we also eat these plastic particles,” shares Prabhakar.

    On top of that, plastic is very persistent, and once microplastics enter the marine environment, they are impossible to remove, they continue. With 12 million tonnes of plastic poured into the ocean every year it is no surprise microplastics have made their way into humans.

    Microplastics in the soil

    Microplastics have made it into farm soils “through plastic mulches and other materials used in agriculture such as irrigation pipes. The tiny plastics can even enter soils through the plastic coating of synthetic fertilizers and seeds, as well as sludge and sewage.” Ellen Fay from Sustainable Soils Alliance tells us.

    Fay explains even organic farming “sometimes uses plastic instead of herbicides to suppress weeds, and this can cause plastic remnants to remain in fields.”

    With 12.5 million tonnes of plastic used in agricultural production annually. Soil is the main receptor as the majority (93%) of global agricultural activities take place on land, according to the FAO. The Sustainable Soil Alliance is encouraging the government to put industry measures in place.

    Especially as the rise in microplastics in the soil can be damaging to human health.

    “Microplastics in soils can enter the food chain through plant root systems and animal grazing – which may in turn have disruptive impacts on human endocrine systems. These microplastics can also end up in our waterways through soil runoff.”

    Microplastics in humans

    A recent study found microplastics in 80% of humans, naturally sparking concern in those who read the news. We checked the facts with our experts, who told us that unfortunately, this is not fake news.

    “Scientists from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam published a study in the peer-reviewed journal Environment International which shows that microplastics were found in almost 80 per cent of the small sample of people tested,” shares Prabhakar.

    It’s no surprise that microplastics have made it into humans, as the experts explain that we’ve unintentionally infiltrated every corner of the planet and used it to our own advantage.


    “Our recent study found that 9 out of 10 cosmetic products in our sample had microplastic ingredients.” Prabhaker, who is also part of The Plastic Soup Foundation, shared with us.

    “Microplastics have been found in many products (e.g. seafood, water, fruit and vegetables) and indoor and outdoor air. We eat, drink and breathe microplastics every day. Plastics have been found in human placentas and blood,” they go on.

    Leading us on to the question…

    Are microplastics harmful? 

    The question we now all need to know. Piper explains, “plastic is everywhere and it’s becoming a part of our physiology as we consume and breathe it in.”

    “Some plastics can contain carcinogenic compounds, while others can absorb unwanted chemicals including heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s), and pesticides that they then transit into our bodies,” she continues.

    Unfortunately, that is not the end of it. As “microplastics small enough to enter cells or tissues have been shown to cause inflammation, allergic response and even cell death. The fact is, we’re so mired in plastics that we don’t yet even know the full longitudinal impact of such exposure.” Piper reveals.

    Prabhaker agrees, adding that microplastics can cause inflammation, DNA damage and cellular damage, among others. But there are still many uncertainties – like how many microplastics are entering our bodies daily, and to what extent these accumulate in our bodies.

    How to avoid microplastics: 5 expert tips

    1. Wash your clothes less often

    Plus, when you do put them in the washing machine, make sure to wash them at a lower temperature, so they shed fewer microplastics.

    2. Get a guppy bag

    Alternatively, get a guppy bag or something similar to catch microplastics in your clothing (think polyester and other synthetics) from entering water systems when you do laundry.

    Guppyfriend Washing Bag, £25 | Whistles
    Titled the first pragmatic solution to prevent microplastic pollution from washing synthetic clothes. Use it just like you would with a normal wash, but check out their FAQ’s for all the info: https://en.guppyfriend.com/pages/guppyfriend-waschbeutel-faq

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    3. Watch out for plastic in your beauty

    To avoid microplastics in cosmetics, download Beat the Microbead app. It’s free to use the fastest way to know if your cosmetics contain microplastics. Check out our list of plastic-free beauty.

    4. Aim for non-plastic

    Try to use non-plastic reusable products at home to avoid exposure to potentially harmful chemicals used in plastic products.

    5. Track your carbon footprint

    Download the My Little Plastic Footprint app to reduce the amount of plastic use in your life and reduce your plastic footprint with 100s of tips

    6. Buy natural ingredients

    Opt for items that are natural materials like cotton, linen, hemp, etc in clothing and furnishings, and opt for plastic-free options when food shopping, like package-free bulk items you can refill with your own containers, items packed in metal, glass or paper, or items from the farmer’s market with no packaging at all.

    7. Eat less seafood

    Reduce or eliminate your consumption of seafood. Much of ocean-bound plastic comes from plastic fishing nets and other accoutrements. Moreover, shellfish have been shown to retain a significant amount of microplastics. So whether you’re looking to stop the plastic infestation at its source or avoid ingesting nano plastics, cutting seafood out can be helpful on both fronts. Our guide to a sustainable diet might help.

    8. Reduce your packaging

    Opt for items with no packaging or non-plastic packaging whenever possible, like shampoo bars, stainless steel safety razors, bamboo toothbrushes and natural tooth tabs.

    9. Reduce nanoplastics

    Regular vacuuming, dusting and air purifying can help with the proliferation of nanoplastics in the air in your home. But be aware that nothing is going to completely render your lifestyle microplastic-free.

    10. Reuse your bottles and cups

    With less than a third of all plastic in the UK recycled, one of the simplest things you can do is use reusable water bottles and coffee cups. Make sure items can be recycled by washing them before throwing them in the recycling bin.

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