Microplastics are precisely what their name implies. They’re tiny particles of plastic usually defined as being less than 5mm (0.2 inches) in diameter. This makes them smaller than the traditional size of pearls used in jewelry making.
Microplastics, and macroplastics that eventually break down into microplastics, are used for numerous applications in various industries. But in recent years, both primary and secondary microplastics have been under increased scrutiny, and rightly so. These small pieces of plastic can harm the health of humans, wildlife, and entire ecosystems.
The most pressing issue with microplastics is that they can not break down into harmless molecules and take hundreds or even thousands of years to decompose. While this decomposition process takes place, the resulting microplastics make their way into environments of all shapes and sizes. During this time, they’re consumed by animals and humans, and they pollute water supplies.
Microplastics have been found in a wide range of marine organisms, including everything from whales to plankton, as well as commercial meat, seafood, agricultural products, and our potable drinking water. Current water treatment facilities are not able to remove these microplastics in full. This leaves them bound with other hazardous chemicals before making their way into animals and humans. Currently, scientists are still not sure as to how much danger these particles pose to human health, but some studies have highlighted many potential concerns.
Here’s what you need to know about microplastics.
How are Microplastics Formed?
Microplastics stem from various sources, including more significant pieces of plastic that break down into smaller pieces over time. Microbeads made from polyethylene plastic are also often added to beauty and skincare products, and these pose a problem too. They quickly move through water filtration systems and end up in larger bodies of water like lakes, dams, and oceans.
Most microplastics originate from manufactured products like single-use plastics, which degrade over time. The integrity of all plastics hinges on their molecular weights. When these plastics degrade, the polymers within them break down, weakening the material and eventually causing it to break into tiny pieces. These microplastics, which may or may not be visible to the naked eye, continue to degrade. The carbon in the polymer eventually converts into CO2, which gets absorbed into marine biomass for microplastics that find their way to the ocean.
When standard polymers like PP, HDPE, and LDPE end up in marine environments, UV-B rays from the sun trigger a primary breakdown process known as photo-oxidative degradation. This degradation process can continue without additional UV radiation exposure once it has begun. But only if oxygen is available to facilitate the process.
Other types of degradation are involved, but they tend to be slower compared to this UV-induced oxidation. All biomaterials, plastics included, will eventually biodegrade in marine settings. But the speed of this degradation is significantly slower than that of light-induced degradation.
What are Primary Microplastics and Secondary Microplastics?
Two main types of microplastics are concerning scientists today.
The first is primary microplastics, which are tiny plastic particles designed for use in commercial preparations, like microbeads in exfoliating body scrubs. They also stem from other textiles, like fishing nets and nylon-based cloth, and microfibers that get released while washing polyester and nylon clothing.
Secondary microplastics are the particles released when larger plastic items break down due to environmental factors, solar radiation, and exposure to sea waves. Both forms of microplastics pose hazards to human and ecosystem health. A holistic approach is essential to reduce the release of both primary and secondary microplastics into the environment.
Why Are Microplastics Bad?
Now that we’ve answered the question of “what are microplastics?” it’s time to answer another one – why are microplastics bad?
Simply put, once plastics are produced, it’s not possible to get rid of them. They cannot get digested, and they’re not biodegradable. The majority of all plastic produced ends up in landfills, rivers, lakes, dams, and oceans.
Larger pieces of plastics float across these bodies of water and collect to form expansive patches like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Microplastics accumulate in deeper water and on beaches, where marine animals often mistake them for food and ingest them. These plastic particles block the animals’ digestive systems, resulting in lower systemic oxygen levels and lower energy levels as a result. Smaller plastic particles that are invisible to the naked eye can embed themselves in animal tissue. When these animals are consumed, the plastics move along the food chain and find themselves in humans. Microplastics in humans can also be inhaled through the lungs.
Microplastic particles can collect polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other chemicals, which link to a range of health concerns. These concerns include immune system dysfunction, chronic inflammation, cancer, reproductive problems, and other issues.
Microplastics’ Effects on Humans
Recently, scientists have discovered microplastics in the placenta tissue of humans, unborn babies, and adult humans. Tiny plastic particles have even been found in some subjects’ blood samples, suggesting that these particles can accumulate and travel throughout the human body and become lodged in organs. A quarter of the blood samples taken for the pioneering study contained polyethylene – the material that’s used to manufacture plastic carrier bags.
When it comes to microplastics’ effects on humans, there is evidence to suggest that these particles can absorb harmful chemicals and release them into the digestive systems of people and animals. Plastic nanoparticles may also have the ability to migrate through a person’s intestinal wall during digestion. There is still much research needed on the subject, but potential concerns surrounding microplastic effects on humans have prompted many prominent organizations to review the topic further.
How to Avoid Microplastics
It is virtually impossible to avoid microplastics in food, fish, and water. These particles are pervasive and abundant. And if they are already in the air, water, or food, there’s little that you一or anyone else一can do to remove them.
However, there are many steps that you can take to reduce your exposure to microplastics. A water filter and air purifier may remove larger plastic particles from your water and air. Limiting your consumption of seafood may protect you from ingesting excessive amounts of plastic particles. Additionally, using silicone or glass storage containers for your food instead of plastic options may help to limit your exposure to tiny plastic particles and the range of chemicals and xenoestrogens that they emit.
However, the best way to deal with the problem of microplastics is to produce and use less plastic overall.
By reducing our use of single-use, disposable plastics and similar packaging, it’s possible to limit the scope of the microplastics problem as more effective ways are found to address it.
Reducing your use of plastics could include:
Buying less packaged and processed food
Investing in a reusable water bottle instead of using single-use plastic bottles
Buying (or making) fabric shopping bags instead of opting for plastic bags
Avoiding using plastic straws
There are reusable alternatives for virtually every convenient plastic product available today. All of these alternatives can help to limit your exposure to microplastics while reducing the amount of plastic that finds its way into the environment.
Furthermore, choosing products with environmentally-friendly, sustainable, and biodegradable packaging is another effective way to reduce the flow of plastics into the environment. You can do all this without sacrificing quality, convenience, or functionality.
Rethinking Packaging Design
It’s no secret that most packaging materials in use today are made either wholly or partially from plastic.
This single-use plastic is usually discarded immediately by consumers. At this point, it starts to break down and adds to the ever-growing volume of ocean microplastics and other essential ecosystems. One of the best ways to tackle this issue at a manufacturing and logistics level is to design circular and sustainable packaging using as little plastic as possible – if any at all.
The microplastics crisis offers businesses a unique opportunity to rethink their use of packaging. It also affords the opportunity to redesign packaging in a way that causes less pollution and environmental harm.
Consider how you could redesign your packaging, improve its volume density, and reduce your use of materials to create robust packaging without such a large carbon footprint. It may be possible to enhance your use of warehouse and delivery vehicle space to reduce your products’ emissions. Designing for supply chain efficiency can reduce businesses’ operational costs and lead to consumer savings too.
Simple design tweaks can have a similar effect.
Garçon Wines’ recent packaging redesign project produced flat, rectangular wine bottles that are made entirely from post-consumer recycled PET plastic. The bottles are designed to be easily recyclable after use. Compared to round bottles of the same volume, the new bottles are 87% lighter and take up 40% less space. In turn, this has improved logistics and reduced transportation and storage costs. The fact that Garçon Wines’ bottles are entirely recyclable improves the chances that they will get recycled in full and that none of their components (like lids and labels) will get sent to the landfill to break down into potentially hazardous microplastics.
You can redesign packaging to use fewer materials to enhance resource efficiency and promote recycling. For instance, a company could print directly onto its product packs instead of using labels. This simple switch would reduce their printing costs and create a more easily recyclable product at the same time. Many businesses have started to establish systems to recover primary and secondary packaging for their own reuse, which supports the growth of the circular economy.
Lastly, sustainable product packaging should clearly inform end users how to discard, reuse, recycle or send on the packaging used. This will go a long way in ensuring that fully recyclable products are disposed of correctly. It will also ensure that refillable bottles get sent back to their origin with the intention of reuse and that non-recyclable packaging gets reused in creative ways to prevent it from reaching landfills or bodies of water. Ultimately, the goal has to be to prevent it from breaking down into microplastics.
The Bottom Line
There is plenty of conjecture as to whether the responsibility to use less plastic should fall on consumers, manufacturers, or a combination of the two.
Many companies have been slow to choose more sustainable packaging options and redesign their supply chains for increased efficiency. However, the businesses that do pay attention to the impacts that their products may have on the environment are positioning themselves to take advantage of consumers’ increasing focus on sustainability and the circular economy.
Rethinking packaging design is one of the most powerful ways to reduce single-use plastic production on a global scale. It’s also an excellent way to reduce the volume of primary and secondary microplastics making their way into our water supplies, ecosystems, and food chain. Every piece of plastic that gets used and discarded today will still be around in a few hundred years’ time. And what’s even worse, tiny particles of it will end up in future generations’ drinking water, food, and air.
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