Tinier than five millimeters, microplastics have become ubiquitous in our lives. From the sheets we sleep in, to the clothes we wear, they are ever-present—even in the water we use for daily tasks like bathing and cooking. Comparable to the size of sesame seeds, these plastic bits continuously shed off clothing and plastic-made items, infiltrating our homes. Furthermore, they enter our living spaces from the outdoors, hitching rides on our clothes and lingering in the air.
Microplastics extend their reach beyond the confines of our homes—from our local towns and states and beyond North America to places as remote as Antarctica, the Himalayas, and the Mariana Trench. Alarming as it is, micro-sized plastics have infiltrated our food and water sources, and astonishingly, they are in our blood and other body tissues. As their presence permeates our environment and impacts our well-being, it is imperative to recognize and address the far-reaching consequences of these tiny plastic particles.
Microplastics: Fear of the unknown
Disturbingly, it’s unknown if and how these tiny bits of plastic might impact our health. But researchers are working to find answers. What we do know is that microplastics can impede crop growth. Researchers are still determining the specifics, but there is a growing body of research on micro granules, soil composition, and the tiny animals that inhabit the soil. A change in soil composition can impede a plant’s ability to take up nutrients, hindering its growth and health. These plastics even end up in the food we grow. Researchers in one study found that among the fruits and vegetables in their sample, apples and carrots, respectively, contained the most microparticles.
Animals, like birds and marine organisms, also ingest microplastics. A study on the northern fulmar, a crow-sized Arctic seabird, found trace chemicals from microbeads in the bird’s stomach oil. Farm animals don’t fare any better. A recent study discovered micro fragments coursing through the veins of cows and pigs. The implications are uncertain.
The ocean is spitting micro debris
This past year another uncertainty about microplastics has been appearing in the headlines. This one deals with a startling discovery: the ocean is releasing microspheres into the atmosphere. The exact amount remains unknown, but experts estimate it to be several million tons.
Salt spray is a phenomenon that scientists have known about for some time. If you’ve ever gone to a beach and noticed how the air smells different closer to the water, that scent is the salt spray from the ocean. It got there via a complicated process involving waves, air bubbles, and wind. Waves crashing into each other or near a shoreline create air bubbles that collect at the water’s surface. As the bubbles pop, they inject tiny sea spray particles into the air, which the wind captures. Curiously, that salt spray consists of more than just salt. It also contains phytoplankton, bacteria, viruses, and … microplastics.
Worldwide, the plastic industry is estimated to manufacture about 380 million metric tons of plastic annually. Of that amount, nearly 8 million metric tons end up in the oceans. Currents carry the plastics far and wide once they’re in the sea. In time, wind, heat, waves, and the sun’s ultraviolet rays break the plastics into small and smaller pieces. Some are so small that the microplastics become nanoplastics—particles measured in nanometers.
Where do microplastics go?
Once airborne, these microparticles ride the air currents and stay aloft for an hour to perhaps a week. Swirling around in the atmosphere, there’s a possibility they might absorb or scatter sunlight and thus play a role in climate change. Scientists are beginning to research this.
Eventually, microplastics fall back to earth. They land on remote Pacific islands, the steppes of Patagonia, the Tibetan Plateau, and the glaciers of Greenland—on land and water. Estimates are rough, but one study determined that 132 fragments per square meter fall daily in the western United States. This might not sound like much, but collectively it adds up to about 1,000 metric tons of micro fragments annually!
Another study highlights “microplastic hotspots” that form on the ocean floor. Much like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, this waste can accumulate in dense patches due to a combination of underwater currents, water temperature, and salinity. Researchers found 1.9 million pieces per square meter in one hotspot in the Mediterranean.
Since the early 1950s, manufacturers have produced more than 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic. And if current trends continue, this amount will increase to 34 billion metric tons by 2050, 35 percent of which will end up in landfills or the ocean. To put this in a different perspective, within the next 30 years, there may be more plastic in the sea than fish.
What can we do?
It’s hard not feeling discouraged and overwhelmed. Microplastics are a massive problem whose legacy will span generations. And because they present so many challenges, they will require multiple solutions.
One solution, in particular, might give humanity the boost it needs. About half of the annual production of plastics consists of single-use plastics—cutlery, water bottles, food wrappers, straws, coffee cups, and grocery bags. This amount is equivalent to the weight of the entire world population! We can shift to metal water bottles, reusable bags, straws, and cutlery to decrease our use of single-use plastics.
Recycling more plastic is another solution. Current estimates suggest that recycling processes handle only 9 percent of waste plastics annually, while an additional 12 percent undergoes incineration. The majority, approximately 79 percent, ends up either in landfills or the environment. Some plastic items, like disposable paper coffee cups, can’t be recycled because of their design. These cups aim to keep liquids hot while ensuring your hands remain cool. Achieving this requires applying a thin polypropylene film layer on the paper cup’s inner side. As a result, recycling becomes challenging for these cups.
Switching to natural fibers is a third solution. Estimates suggest that about 35 percent of microplastics are microfibers. Where do they come from? Mostly from our textiles. This material encompasses synthetic fibers like polyester, nylon, acrylic, elastane, and polyolefin. And the same qualities that make them so spectacular—their resistance to water, heat, stains, wearing, and so on—are the same qualities that make them so spectacularly detrimental to the environment. In contrast, natural fibers like silk, wool, cotton, linen, and jute don’t provide such a threat. Also, thanks to advances in textile manufacturing, these fibers are proving to be just as resilient and robust as their synthetic counterparts.
Combatting the many challenges posed by microplastics is daunting, but not all the solutions must be complicated. Sometimes, the best ones are the easiest to implement. Especially those that we can do ourselves.
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Geyer, Roland, Jenna R. Jambeck, and Kara Lavender Law. “Production, Use, and Fate of all Plastics Ever Made.” Science Advances 3, e170078 (July 17, 2017).
Kühn, Susanne, et al. “Transfer of Additive Chemicals From Marine Plastic Debris to the Stomach Oil of Northern Fulmars.” Frontiers in Environmental Science 8 (2020).
Revell, Laura E., et al. “Direct Radiative Effects of Airborne Microplastics.” Nature 598 (October 20, 2021).
Stevenson, Charlotte. “Opinion: The Ocean Is Returning Our Plastic Waste. That’s a Real Problem.” Undark, December 9, 2021.
Weisberger, Mindy. “Should You Worry about Microplastics in Bottled Water?” Live Science, March 15, 2018.