Microplastics: Where Are They Now?

By Aislinn Redbond, posted 14/10/21

The short answer is: everywhere.

There was a brief period where the term ‘microplastics’ was as ubiquitous as plastic itself is. A time when scientists and consumers alike were alarmed by the reports of plastic in our fish stocks and our drinking water, with one report even finding traces of microplastics in unborn babies. However, just as this health and environmental hazard was beginning to attract serious attention from the media and public, the COVID-19 pandemic overshadowed it, and microplastics skirted backwards into the corners of public consciousness. Now, as we begin to crawl out of the pandemic conditions and return to our pre-pandemic routines, it might be time to revisit the topic of microplastics.

Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic and they come from an array of sources, carrying with them a number of threatening effects. Often, we picture microplastics as the residue, the last remaining particles, of larger plastic items that have been broken down by the sun or the sea. However, these forms of microplastics constitute only part of the problem, and are in fact considered to be secondary microplastics. Primary microplastics, on the other hand, are the tiny particles that can be found in products such as synthetics (think microfibres) and cosmetics. These microplastics are, to a degree, intentionally created, although it is fair to assume that their environmental impacts are not so intentional. Distinguishing between the two types of microplastics is an important first step in addressing the problem of microplastics - without the tools to recognise them, how can we be expected to avoid them?

Rallying against secondary microplastics is somewhat straightforward - in theory. It largely requires us to avoid plastic products and to prolong the lives of the plastic items we already own. While going plastic-free is not easy by any stretch of the imagination, it is becoming more and more accessible, as outlined in our previous article here. When we reduce the amount of plastic being consumed in the first place, we eliminate opportunities for plastic to seep into our natural environments, causing harm to wildlife and human health. Tackling the problem of primary microplastics is, unfortunately, a little bit trickier. Since they can exist in clothing, it is extremely difficult to prevent the release of microplastics into our water systems as everybody has to wash their clothes at some point. However, when purchasing items (old or new!), we can try to be more aware of the fabrics that make up our clothing. The general rule of thumb would be to avoid man-made synthetics, and to stick to natural fabrics such as cotton and linen - for a comprehensive list of what fabrics to avoid, check out this article or to learn more about the benefits and drawbacks of different fabrics, you can read our Fabric Awareness Booklet made by SHRUB’s Sustainable Fashion Volunteers. Furthermore, when it comes to cosmetic products, we as consumers have to get a bit scientifically technical, so that we can recognise which ingredients to avoid in our products. Names such as polyethylene, acrylates copolymer, ethylene and polymethyl are just a few of the names to look out for, with a much more exhaustive list available here. Again, generally sticking to cosmetics made of natural, vegan ingredients is a safe route to avoid microplastic pollution.

Microplastics may seem like a tiny but powerful enemy that will never be eliminated, but there are steps that we as consumers can actively take to reduce the potency of these pollutants. While we may have become used to relying on plastic for protection during the COVID-19 pandemic (plastic coffee cups became our only option for a while), a return to normalcy means a return to action. And while we may not have always known the ways in which plastic wielded power over our lives (I’m looking at you, microbeads!), the more knowledge we have, the better equipped we are to demand change from our leaders, together. We are only beginning to see the effects of microplastics in our food chain, but we don’t have to wait to find out. Fish with a side of microplastics? I think I’ll pass.

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