Microplastic, What Exactly Is It?

There is currently no standardized definition, but the term microplastics is generally used to describe plastic particles whose size is five millimeters or less. The very small pieces, which are only one micrometer or less, are called nanoplastics. Even if the research in this field is still in its beginning stage, one issue is already proven: microplastics are found almost everywhere in nature. They are found in the sea, in groundwater, in the air, in the soil and in the ice.

Plastic pieces on a beach
Plastic pieces on a beach

Where Does It Come From?

Microplastics are the result of the fragmentation of larger plastic parts, so-called macroplastics — for example, plastic bottles or plastic packaging. If plastic is exposed to environmental influences such as light, heat, salt, bacteria, etc., they become brittle and susceptible to further fragmentation.

For example, this process is enhanced for plastics found on the surface of the sea. Increased friction due to wind and waves, as well as animal bites will break down plastics quicker than those submerged in the sea itself.  The lack of sunlight, lower temperatures and a lower oxygen concentration are responsible for this.

Sources Of Microplastics

Ninety-eight percent of emissions of microplastic particles into the environment are caused by activities on land. Once microplastics have been released into the environment in an uncontrolled way, they can be transported over long distances by wind, rivers, sea, rainwater, flooding and sewage disposal, and can therefore reach different places quickly and easily. Unlike macroplastics, it is technically not possible to remove microplastics from the environment. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) the sources are:

  • Abrasion of tires (cars, trucks, bicycles, motorcycles, skateboards, etc.)
  • Emissions from waste disposal (compost, construction waste, metal shredding, plastics recycling)
  • Abrasion of asphalt
  • Drifts of sports and playgrounds (artificial grass pitches, riding arenas, tartan tracks, playgrounds)
  • Releases at construction sites (demolition work, processing of plastics at the construction site, abrasion in insulation)
  • Abrasion of shoe soles
  • Abrasion of plastic packaging
  • Abrasion of road markings
  • Fiber abrasion during washing of synthetic textiles (household and commercial laundry)

Plastic Waste In The Sea

Plastic bags swimming in the ocean
Plastic waste
Since 1964 the production of plastic has increased twentyfold. In 2017, 348 million tons of plastic per year were produced worldwide. It is expected that the amount of plastic produced will double in the next 20 years.

One third of our plastic waste is released into the environment.

Plastic is often used for one single purpose – that means expressed in figures: more than 75% of all plastic ever produced is waste. A significant amount of this is disposed of in an inappropriate manner. The incorrect disposal is a direct result of inadequate waste management: plastic is not collected at all or is disposed of wildly or dumped in uncontrolled landfills.

86 % of used plastic packaging is not recycled, but is disposed of as waste: 
40 % of it is landfilled
14 % is burned
32 % leaves the system - i.e, they end up in the environment, e.g. in the oceans, in an uncontrolled manner.

14 % are recycled, most of it is recycled into lower quality products. 

Microplastic In Our Sea

Plastic bottles on the beach

A large part of the microplastics in the environment is found in our oceans.

Microplastics cannot be retrieved from the oceans practically and are degraded only very slowly. The concentration of microplastics in the environment will therefore automatically, significantly increase over the years.

This represents a major threat for many sea organisms. Many marine organisms can’t distinguish common plastic items from food. These marine animals who eat plastic often starve because they can’t digest the plastic, so it fills their stomachs, preventing them from eating real food. The additives contained in the plastic can also harm the sea dwellers.

Fish and plastic bags

In addition, plastic particles injure the mucous membranes, occupy the respiratory organs or injure and clog the gastrointestinal tract of the animals. The effects of these consequences are very damaging to our sensitive ecosystem.

Microplastics In Our Bodies

Micro- and nanoplastics are on everyone’s lips these days — literally! For decades, we have contaminated our environment with so much plastic that it is no longer even possible to drink a glass of water without absorbing microplastics.  A new study (commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund and carried out by University of Newcastle, Australia) reports that, on average, people could be ingesting approximately 5 grams of plastic every week, which is the equivalent weight of a credit card. We pick up the particles while eating, drinking and even breathing! The WWF put together this short video to illustrate the point:

Microplastic in drinking water

The largest source of plastic ingestion is drinking water. Plastic has been found worldwide in ground water, surface water, tap water and bottled water. However, there are large regional differences. For example, the figures in the USA and India are about twice as high as in Europe or Indonesia.
Other sources of microplastics are salt, honey, beer and shellfish — shellfish, because we eat the whole fish, including their digestive system.

The long-term effects of microplastic ingestion on human health have not yet been fully explored. Studies are currently in progress on this topic. Scientists suspect that the health risk could be greater than currently known.

According to the WWF, scientists assume that microplastic particles can either mechanically damage human organs or cause irritations. Studies on animals have shown that additives present in plastic, such as softeners or flame retardants, can have hormone-like effects and can affect reproduction, growth and sexual development of the animals.

A direct ingestion in plants or the contamination of edible parts of plants by microplastics has not been studied until now and is considered unlikely. However, microplastic particles can stick to the surface of salads or root vegetables, for example, and thus enter the food chain. In addition, microplastics could reduce the productivity and ecological functionality of the soil and thus have effects on global food production.

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