A scientist in a lab coat holding a flask with visible microplastics, emphasizing the microplastic problem with bold overlay text.

The Microplastic Problem: Impact and Solutions

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Simply Plastic Free acknowledges the Traditional Owners of country throughout Australia and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We acknowledge that these lands were stolen and sovereignty was never ceded and we join their calls for justice.

Microplastic Problem: Understanding the Impact of Microplastics on Our Environment

Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic that have a huge impact on the environment and our health. Microplastics are plastic particles that measure less than 5mm in length. They can come from a variety of sources, including cosmetics, clothing, and industrial processes. As a result, they have become ubiquitous in the environment, with studies finding them in oceans, rivers, and even in the air we breathe.

The problem with microplastics is that they can have a negative impact on the environment and human health. Marine life can mistake microplastics for food, which can lead to blockages in their digestive systems. This can cause starvation, suffocation, and other health problems. Microplastics can also accumulate in the food chain, potentially impacting human health. While the long-term effects of microplastics on human health are still being studied, it is clear that the problem is significant and needs to be addressed.

Definition and Origins of Microplastics

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles, typically smaller than 5 millimetres in size. They originate from a variety of sources and have become a significant environmental concern due to their persistence and potential to harm aquatic life and ecosystems. The source of microplastics can be traced back to both primary and secondary sources, each contributing uniquely to this growing issue.

Types of Microplastics

Primary microplastics are manufactured and used in a variety of products, such as cosmetics, cleaning products, and plastic pellets used in manufacturing. They can be intentionally added to products or accidentally released during production or transportation. Primary microplastics are usually spherical or irregularly shaped and can be made from a variety of polymers, including polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene. Synthetic fibres used for clothing is also a primary source of microplastic.

Nurdle Pollution on sand
Nurdles – Microplastic found on beach.

Primary Sources

Primary sources of microplastics are those which are manufactured to be of a micro-scale size. These include:

  • Microbeads in Cosmetics: Commonly used in skincare products, these tiny beads are designed for exfoliating properties.
  • Industrial Scrubbers: Used in various industrial processes, these small plastics are employed for cleaning and abrasive purposes.
  • Synthetic Textiles: Fibres shed from clothing and textiles during washing contribute significantly to microplastic pollution.
  • Nurdles: Tiny plastic beads which are the building blocks for making plastic products.

Secondary Sources

Secondary microplastics, on the other hand, result from the degradation of larger plastic items. This degradation can occur due to various environmental factors such as sunlight, physical abrasion, and biological activity. Key secondary sources include:

  • Plastic Packaging: As these degrade, they fragment into smaller pieces.
  • Abandoned Fishing Gear: Nets and ropes made of plastic degrade over time in marine environments.
  • Automotive Tyre Wear: Tiny particles shed from tyres contribute to road runoff carrying microplastics.

Environmental Impact of Microplastics

Microplastics, while small in size, have a vast and detrimental impact on various ecosystems around the globe. These particles, originating from larger plastic debris, have infiltrated marine, freshwater, and terrestrial environments, causing harm to wildlife and disrupting natural processes. The implications of this pollution extend beyond the immediate environmental effects, posing significant concerns for the health of wildlife and ecosystems.

Ocean Plastic

Marine Ecosystems

Marine ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to microplastic pollution. Microplastics can enter the ocean through various sources such as from rivers washing plastic into the ocean, nurdle spills & fishing equipment. Once in the ocean, these tiny particles are ingested by a wide range of marine species, leading to health complications and even mortality. Microplastics are mistaken for food by small fish and plankton, initiating a chain reaction of health issues within the marine food web. This problem extends up the food chain, ultimately affecting larger marine animals and, potentially, human health through the consumption of seafood.

Freshwater Systems

Microplastics also pose a significant threat to freshwater systems, such as rivers and lakes. These environments often receive microplastics through urban runoff and industrial waste, disrupting aquatic life. The presence of microplastics in freshwater bodies can lead to chemical imbalances and harm to freshwater organisms. Microplastic in freshwater can contaminate drinking water sources, directly impacting human health.

Terrestrial Impact

The impact of microplastics on terrestrial ecosystems is profound. These particles can alter soil composition, affect plant growth, and harm soil-dwelling organisms. The use of plastic in agricultural practices, like plastic mulching, contributes to the accumulation of microplastics in the soil, potentially affecting crop health and soil fertility.

Wildlife Ingestion and Entanglement

Wildlife is directly threatened by microplastics through ingestion and entanglement. Many animals, mistaking microplastics for food, ingest them, which can lead to internal injuries, starvation, and death. Larger pieces of plastic debris can cause entanglement, resulting in suffocation, drowning, and restricted movement, severely impacting wildlife populations.

Human Health Concerns

The effects on the human body from ingesting microplastic is largely unknown but it is an area of concern for scientists, health professionals and everyone living in our plastic-filled world. The small size of microplastic particles makes them easily ingested by marine organisms, which can then enter the food chain and ultimately end up on our plates. In this section, we will discuss the exposure pathways and potential toxicological effects of microplastics on human health.

How Do We Ingest Microplastic?

The microplastic problem extends to our daily intake, often without our knowledge. Microplastics, infiltrating our food chain and water sources, are ingested by humans through various means. This includes consumption of seafood, especially shellfish, which accumulate microplastics. Synthetic clothing materials shed microfibers that become part of the air we breathe. Bottled water and plastic packaging in food and drink are also significant contributors. Microplastics have been found in tap water and in airborne particles, especially in urban areas. Learn more about how you might be unknowingly ingesting plastic daily.

Potential Toxicological Effects

The potential toxicological effects of microplastics on human health are not yet fully understood. However, studies have shown that microplastics can cause physical damage to the organs and tissues of marine organisms, leading to reduced growth, reproduction, and survival rates. In humans, ingesting microplastics may cause irritation and inflammation of the digestive system, as well as the absorption of toxic chemicals that may be present on the surface of the particles. Microplastics may also act as a vector for the transport of harmful bacteria and viruses.

What Can We Do About Microplastic Pollution?

Microplastic pollution is a global issue that requires action at all levels of government. The crux of the issue is the over production of plastic and lack of recycling systems.

Global Action On Microplastic Pollution

In November 2023, a key meeting in Nairobi marked a crucial step in tackling global microplastic pollution. Over 1,900 delegates from 161 countries U.N. member countries are negotiating a global treaty to reduce plastic pollution, which they aim to complete by the end of 2024. The outcomes of this session are pivotal in shaping a treaty that seeks to regulate plastic’s lifecycle, a significant move in the worldwide effort to mitigate microplastic pollution. Progress is being made but there is delaying tactics being used by petrostates who profit from plastic production. Learn more.

Plastic Reduction In Australia

Australia has made progress in plastic reduction by implementing bans on various plastic items like straws, cutlery and plastic bags however there is still a long way to go. The recycling systems are lacking with very minimal capacity for the recycling of soft plastic. One million tonnes of Australia’s annual plastic consumption is single-use plastic 84% of plastic is sent to landfill and only 13% is recycled.

Busiensses will not willingly reduce plastic if it hurts their bottom-line so consumers need to put pressure on businesses and elected representatives to move faster on plastic bans. Banning plastic bags is useless if 90% of supermarket products are packaged in single-use plastic.

Ban on single use plastics - scorecare by Australian Marine Conservation Society

Biodegradable Alternatives

Biodegradable plastic is an last resort where single-use plastic cannot be avoided. Bioplastics have their own issues as they need very specific conditions or break-down and there are not enough commercial composting facilities to process this waste. There is potential for this to improve and become a real way to minimise the need for plastic and therefore stop microplastic pollution.

✅ Learn more about compostable and biodegradable materials

Cleanup Technologies

Microplastic pollution is already present in the environment, and it is essential to remove the existing plastic waste to mitigate and remediate the problem. Therefore, we recommend exploring and promoting the use of cleanup technologies to remove microplastic pollution from the environment. Cleanup technologies include physical, chemical, and biological methods. Physical methods involve the use of nets, skimmers, and other devices to remove plastic waste from water bodies. Chemical methods involve the use of chemicals to break down plastic waste. Biological methods involve using microorganisms to break down plastic waste.

Concluding: Microplastic Pollution

The microplastic problem is going to get worse before it gets better and we need to get serious about reducing plastic, especially single-use.

Get started by refusing plastic and finding reusable alternatives. If you want learn to go plastic free start by taking our 5 day plastic free challenge.

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