Plastic has entered our lives as a super material that takes on virtually any shape, color or property … occupying a prominent place in almost every day product for its economy and durability.
However, this versatility has hidden a small secret that has accumulated “silently” everywhere, from the water we drink to the fish we eat to the dust we breathe.
Comprehending how microplastics are formed is important for a better understanding of their true impact on health and how we as a society can gradually remove them from our lives.
WHAT ARE AND WHERE DO MICROPLASTICS COME FROM?
Microplastics are small plastic particles smaller than 5 mm in size and are classified into primary or secondary depending on their formation.
Primary microplastics are already less than 5 millimeters by the time they are released into the environment. They can be intentionally added to everyday products as common cosmetics or detergents, as an exfoliating agent or to give the consistency of gel.
They can also result from abrasion of plastics during manufacture, use or maintenance, such as tire erosion or washing of synthetic textiles.
Secondary microplastics result from the later degradation in the marine environment of larger plastics, such as plastic bags, fishing nets, disposables, by sunlight, mechanical action or even by the action of microorganisms.
Removing the well-known plastic islands from the oceans led to the creation of several projects, including The Ocean Clean Up.
The microplastics produced in our day-to-day life are routed to wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) that can filter out part of them when equipped with secondary or higher treatment.
In Portugal this type of treatment is installed in most of the WWTP (66%) so equipping the rest is a priority step.
ARE MICROPLASTICS HARMFUL TO US?
Microplastics contain chemicals that can have a negative impact on the human health and the environment, with many associated consequences.
The presence of microplastics is neutral or negative for marine life (fish and invertebrates) at various stages of their lives (growth, reproduction and survival in the oceans).
In addition to the presence of microplastics in fish, preliminary studies confirm the existence of microplastics in the dust we breathe, in the bottled water and in the very salt we eat.
Although there are no population-based studies on the isolated effects of microplastics on our health yet, their exposure is real – microplastics have recently been detected in human feces in several European countries.
The best known case, Bisphenol-A (BPA), even in residual doses, causes hormonal dysregulation and begins to be associated with various diseases.
Several countries have woken up to this reality and have started turning off the tap for microplastics, including the United States (2015), the United Kingdom (2018) and more recently, the European Union (2020).
The ban affects some cosmetics, toiletries, detergents and cleaning products.
HOW CAN I REDUCE MICROPLASTICS IN MY DAILY ROUTINE?
Reducing microplastics means reducing and relinquishing plastic products in various everyday activities and, if not able to use them to the end of their life and recycling in the yellow ecopoints.
We went through some of the common spaces to give you some less plastic alternatives so that you can turn off the tap for microplastics in your daily life.
IN THE LAUNDRY – 35% OF PRIMARY MICROPLASTICS
The textile industry has a huge footprint and is currently the largest source of primary microplastics (35%). Synthetic laundry (eg acrylic, nylon and polyester) wears clothes and releases microfibres to domestic wastewater, which may or may not be filtered by the WWTP.
Resisting the rush of fast fashion is crucial by rationing the wardrobe with more durable pieces and extending their life by “recycling” or selling them secondhand.
Since synthetic garments release microplastics, they do fewer washes, when possible, fill the machine, use longer cycles with lower rpm and temperature.
IN TRANSPORTS – 28% OF PRIMARY MICROPLASTICS
Tires account for 28% of microplastics released into wastewater and soil.
The process of particle release occurs in its use through contact of the tire with the road, which causes wear and tear of the powdered tire and is then “washed” off the roads by water or wind.
On average, a tire releases about 600 grams of microplastics a year!
You are looking for more efficient (and economical) forms of transport such as carpool, public transport or even cycling to reduce this source of microplastic pollution.
IN THE BATHROOM – ORIGIN OF 2% OF MICROPLASTICS
We can begin to reverse the process at the source of contamination, specifically in the bathroom.
Remember that the toilet is not a dustbin, so at worst you can only put the toilet paper there.
Any other type of product (cotton swabs, sanitary towels, diapers or wipes, among others) are difficult to treat in WWTP and are a source of microplastics for water.
The international Beat The Microbead movement (which includes the Portuguese APLM) monitors all commercial products with microspheres, which is a type of microplastic.
The movement has been pushing within the European Union to eliminate microplastics in all cosmetics and not just solids.
Products to avoid include bleaching toothpastes, exfoliating shower gel, toothbrushes, cotton swabs, make-up and make-up removers.
Among the alternatives we have to save the environment of microplastics we find:
- Bamboo toothbrushes that have a compostable handle, unlike current brushes that, because they have several polymers, are not currently recyclable in Portugal;
- solid or hydrated silica toothpaste, the former being more biodegradable and the second inert because of sand (silica);
- solid soap and shampoo require less transport plastic and require less treatment in WWTP because they are biodegradable and have no microspheres;
- reusable menstrual cup that does not use super-absorbent polymers that contaminate undifferentiated waste or make water treatment difficult in WWTP;
- bamboo swabs, which are biodegradable, do not contaminate undifferentiated waste;
- Make-up is one of the most microsphere-containing products and there is still a long way to go, so if you want to commit to this mission, choose different alternatives.
For the most resistant to change in the bathroom …
If you are not used to solid soaps and shampoos, choose to buy larger volume packages and use liquid soap and shampoo dispensers, reducing microplastics by the amount per use. Likewise, it is advisable to use only one little toenail of toothpaste per wash.
Although ordinary toothbrushes are not recyclable (due to the complexity of materials), placing them in the yellow ecopoints ensures that they are properly routed and do not contaminate soil and water in undifferentiated landfills.
IN THE KITCHEN
The requirement of hygiene in food, legally requires the packaging of food, sometimes exaggerated. Thus, in several supermarkets, it is compulsory to bring fresh ones in their own plastic bags and often, especially in the case of meat and fish, with two complementary packages.
Buying local products in the markets ensures that they do not need further packaging (plastic packaging) and allows reusing own bags.
When storing cooked food, avoid plastic containers that may release BPA. Although there are some heat-resistant containers (microwave and dishwasher resistant), ensuring that microplastics are not released during their lifetime is difficult. Prefer glass containers when heating food in the microwave.
For the lunchbox you can use glass containers, or alternatively for cold food such as a sandwich or piece of fruit, use a cloth or reusable packaging.
WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT MICROPLASTICS?
If you want to get a broader perspective on the health and environmental hazards of microplastics, watch episode 40 – Biosphere Microplastics, where Planetiers was involved.