Facts You Should Know About Microplastics

We are becoming increasingly aware of the problems caused by microplastics. Suston gives you a quick lesson on the subject.

What are microplastics and where do they come from?
Microplastics are defined as tiny fragments of plastic measuring from 1 to 5 mm. They can be formed unintentionally when plastic objects begin to wear and shed particles, or when we do not reuse, recycle or dispose of plastic materials correctly. Then the plastic ends up in landfills, gradually breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces in nature. There is also plastic that is actually manufactured as tiny pellets or grains. Currently, the primary sources of this are roads and tires, artificial turf, industry, boat bottom paint and general litter.

What are microfibers and microbeads?
When talking about plastic pollution, fragments that are smaller than 1 mm are called microfibers. Microfibers can come from fishnets, plastic items that are subjected to wear and so on, but more and more research shows that the greatest source of microfibers in nature is synthetic clothing—polyester, nylon, rayon and more. Microbeads are used as a functional ingredient in many skin care products, such as body scrubs. Several countries have banned the use of microbeads in recent years.

How do microplastics end up in waterways and oceans?
New research shows that the majority of all plastic in the world’s oceans comes from poor countries, where the rivers are often used as garbage dumps. Plastic is carried out to sea and is gradually ground down to smaller and smaller particles. But richer countries, too, contribute significant amounts of plastic pollution. Because microplastics and microfibers are so small, they pass through sewage treatment plants, eventually ending up in the sea.

Are microplastics toxic?
There are different kinds of plastic, and not all are harmful to health. PVC is considered an environmentally harmful plastic (which more and more companies are trying to phase out of their production), while polyethylene is considered a less harmful type. The big problem is really the substances that are added to the plastic to give it certain characteristics such as plastic softeners, which later leach out of the plastic and harm the environment. We already know that additives such as bisphenol A (BPA) can disrupt hormone production, as do certain types of phthalates.

Are fleece garments a particularly large source of microfibers?
It was previously thought that fleece garments made of polyester were the primary source of microfibers, but in fact all garments made of synthetic fibers shed a certain amount of plastic. Unbrushed fleece is better than brushed.

How can I help to reduce emissions of microplastics?
Wash your synthetic garments less often—air them instead. Laundry bags like Guppy Friend are a clever tool for preventing microplastics getting into the rinse water. Keep an eye out for textile innovations—there’s a lot happening in the field. Reduce your use of plastic in your daily life and recycle the plastic you do use.

Facts you should know about microplastics

Illustrations: Nadia Nörbom


Nicolas Jändel