Microplastics Are Infiltrating the Environment
An introduction to the issue, and exploring the changes we can make to help reduce microplastic levels in nature.
Although human populations are concentrating in urban areas surrounded by concrete and buildings, humanity remains tethered to nature. How we treat the environment affects us persistently via unavoidable feedback loops. Microplastic concentration levels are rapidly rising in our oceans and freshwater sources (lakes, rivers, streams, etc.) which is giving rise to significant consequences. Microplastics adversely affect all animal species, including humans.
Microplastics in the water supply directly affect marine life (fish, shellfish, shrimp, etc.) by altering their normal bodily functions due to microplastic toxicity. Additionally, humans are at risk of microplastic toxicity as well after we consume marine life with elevated microplastic levels. To paraphrase Michael Pollan, the author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto:
we are what we eat as well as what they eat.
The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines microplastics as:
“Microplastics are small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long which can be harmful to our ocean and aquatic life.” -NOAA
Additionally, the microplastics crisis extends beyond aquatic environments. The New Times reported that microplastics have infiltrated the air at alarming levels as well. Microplastics pervasively enter the environment at all stages of the supply chain starting with the industrial manufacturing processes used to convert raw materials to plastics. It continues at home when we wash our synthetic fiber (plastic) clothing and consume single-use plastic items such as plastic bags, bottles, and cups which are then sent to the landfill.
To better understand the microplastics crisis and the associated risks, the digital media company Seeker — backed by Discovery, Inc. — published a couple of lucid videos to help raise awareness. The videos below are from their YouTube channel in the series “The Swim” and “Elements”:
5 Things You Can Start Doing to Reduce Microplastics
If you’re a concerned consumer that wants to know what they can do, reference the list below for easy-to-do, no/low-cost behavioral actions. Building on familiar recycling methodologies such as Reduce-Reuse-Recycle or Refuse-Reduce-Reuse-Recycle-Repurpose, this list is a practical guide with simple actions that everyday people can take without having to sacrifice their lifestyle or consumption needs.
1. Start buying natural fiber clothing (reduce or stop buying synthetic fiber (plastic) clothing).
- Look for tags with organic cotton, wool, hemp, silk, and bamboo.
- Synthetic fibers include polyester, argon, spandex (lycra), nylon, etc. (if it sounds synthetic, it probably is — perform a quick internet search to confirm).
2. Start using reusable grocery/errand bags (stop using single-use plastic bags).
- Ensure the bags are cotton or other natural fiber (not polyester or other synthetic fiber).
- Reusable bags are available for purchase at most (grocery) stores near the checkout.
- If you enjoy DIY, try cutting an old cotton t-shirt in half (horizontally) and sewing the bottom closed!
3. Start using a stainless steel or glass water bottle (stop using single-use plastic bottles or cups).
- This is an investment that will pay for itself in less than a month and will be cash flow positive after that.
4. Start asking yourself questions before buying or using a product:
- Do I need this particular piece of plastic or synthetic fiber in my life? Will this item bring happiness to my life? (nod to Marie Kondo)
- Is this a single-use plastic? Will I throw it away after it’s empty?
- Is there a non-plastic/natural option for the same product? For example, if you like olive oil, consider buying it in a glass jar versus a plastic bottle — no sacrifice at the dinner table!
Implementing the items above is an admirable start, but it’s likely unrealistic to expect we can avoid plastics altogether. Therefore, we need to ensure we’re disposing of/recycling the plastic we do use, in a responsible manner. This brings us to the final item:
5. Recycle only what your local recycling company will accept. Super important!
- Some plastics cannot be recycled.
- What can be recycled varies city-to-city, so you have to check.
- Why do you need to check?: Including an item in the recycling bin that is not accepted can result in the entire load being rejected. Thus, everything gets sent to the landfill — including the items that could’ve been recycled.
- Unfortunately, if you’re not sure whether a particular item can be recycled, it’s best to not include it in the recycling bin to avoid compromising the entire load.
- See your local recycling company’s webpage to verify. They’ll explicitly tell you what you can recycle and where (e.g., Waste Management). For example, most recycling companies do not accept the ubiquitous, single-use plastic bags provided at nearly every check-out. Fortunately, companies like Target do accept plastic bags so you can drop them off there.
Implementing these simple actions today can have a huge impact on reducing microplastics in our environment.
For information on the growing “garbage patch” in the Pacific, check out this video.