The International Union for Conservation of Nature defines primary microplastics as being plastics released into the environment in the form of small particulates, but not necessarily plastics manufactured to be microplastics. This definition of microplastics includes plastic fragments and fibers resulting from the abrasion of large plastic objects during manufacturing, use or maintenance.
You can read the following 10 facts and insights about microplastics in this article.
- The amount of plastic that enters the ocean every year exceeds 10 million tonnes, and approximately 1 million tonnes of this is classified as “primary microplastics”. The global release of microplastics into the ocean is estimated to be between 0.8 and 2.5 million tonnes per year, filling roughly 66,000-200,000 average-sized refuse collection trucks.
- The main sources of primary microplastics include vehicle tires, synthetic textiles, paints, and personal care products. Plastics that enter the environment macro-sized but later degrade into micro-sized particles are called ‘secondary’ microplastics and constitute a substantial portion of microplastic pollution.
- Microplastics pose an environmental hazard because their ingestion by marine organisms has been shown to negatively impact their growth, development, and reproduction. This can, in turn, result in negative outcomes for human health. In 2017, the annual production of plastic products was 348 million tonnes worldwide. This is expected to increase to 33 billion tonnes by 2050.
- Plastics are primarily broken down in the environment by abiotic factors, including UV radiation, temperature, and abrasion, which may take hundreds of years to decompose. Moreover, plastic pollution is expected to increase dramatically without significant intervention due to continued population growth and rising per capita plastic use.
- Microplastics pose an environmental hazard in their capacity to serve as a dispersal mechanism for invasive species and pathogens and because they are often mistaken by marine and terrestrial organisms as food. Some species, including crabs and mussels, can take up microplastics from the environment through their gills.
- Microplastics pose a potential hazard to human health primarily through dietary exposure, resulting predominantly from the ingestion of contaminated shellfish and fish but also from some canned foods, honey, sugar, table salt, root crops, leaf crops, meat, and beverages, including milk, drinking water, and beer.
- The issue of microplastic pollution is a growing concern among many consumers worldwide. Microplastic uptake by seafood in aquacultures may reduce their availability for human consumption. For example, tourists aware of the health concerns regarding microplastic exposure may avoid engaging in water-based recreational activities or consume local seafood from coastal regions where microplastic pollution is a problem.
- A single garment can produce more than 1900 fibers per wash. The full release of microfibres while washing an average load of laundry is calculated to be between 3.2 and 17 million fibers or approximately 0.5-1.3 grams. Multiplying this figure by the total estimated loads of laundry in the EU gives an estimated production of 18,430 and 46,175 tonnes of microfibres per year in the EU alone.
- Microplastics in personal care products make up a relatively small but well-recognized facet of microplastic pollution in the form of microbeads in various rinse-off personal care products such as exfoliants. Several countries have legislated bans against manufacturing and using plastic microbeads in personal care products.
- Certain microplastics (for example, city dust) can also be transported via wind. In urban areas, the deposition of plastic fibers has been recorded to reach 355 particles/m2/day.90 The possibility of airborne transfer highlights the potential for microplastics to travel long distances and contaminate the air we breathe and the foods and beverages we consume.
In conclusion, microplastic pollution is a pressing issue that affects our planet in numerous ways. From contaminating our oceans and harming marine life to entering our food chain and potentially impacting our health, microplastics are a cause for concern.
It is important to address this problem by reducing our human use of plastic products, properly disposing of plastic waste, and implementing regulations to limit the release of microplastics into the environment. Only by working together and taking action can we mitigate the harmful effects of microplastics and preserve the health of our planet for future generations.