Microplastics and How to Keep Them Out of the Oceans

In the last couple of years you have probably heard the term – microplastics – and how they negatively affect the aquatic organisms, birds, the water quality and our own health. Microplastics are small plastic pieces that are less than five millimetres long or about the size of a sesame seed. They come from various sources, including larger pieces of plastic debris degrading into smaller and smaller, as well as from synthetic fibres and microbeads from personal hygiene products.

Plastic is the most prevalent type of marine debris found in our oceans, rivers and lakes. This substance was made to last and it does not biodegrade. Most of the plastic waste ends up in our oceans, and thus the consequences of it are often overlooked. National Geographic writes:

“This ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality keeps people from truly understanding the consequences of marine pollution and heedless disposal of waste items. From solid garbage to sewage disposal to fertilizer runoff, more than 80% of waste that ends up in the ocean is generated on land, and one of the major contributors to this mess is plastic.”

There is one particular type of plastic, whose damaging effects are not fully recognised and are still being researched, and these are microplastics. Some of the recent researches indicate that microplastic pollution in the oceans is far greater than initially thought, as The Guardian notes:

“Currently scientists can only account for 1% of the plastic they think is in the ocean.” Microplastics include degrading plastic waste, synthetic fibres and microbeads often found in personal hygiene products. These small plastic particles harm aquatic life and birds, which can mistake them for food, and thus they also can be consumed by humans via seafood, tap water etc. The Guardian further writes:

“The risk to people is still not known, but there are concerns that microplastics can accumulate toxic chemicals and that the tiniest could enter the bloodstream.”

The research done in 2015 by Erik van Sebille, at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, et al, concluded that 99% of plastic in the ocean is not on the surface level anymore. As he adds to The Guardian:

“The problem is that we don’t know where that 99% of plastic is. Is it on beaches, the seafloor, in marine organisms? Before we can start thinking about cleaning up the plastic, we’ll first need to know how it’s distributed.”

Even though the plastic pollution problem is a far bigger issue than we can yet fully understand and comprehend, there are several steps that each individual can take in order to reduce further plastic and particularly microplastic pollution. Firstly and foremost reduce and refuse plastic whenever it is possible, reuse and recycle as much as possible. To reduce microplastics in particular, avoid personal hygiene products that contain microbeads. However, one of the biggest creators of small plastic particles is synthetic fibres (any man made material), and as ironic (and sad) it might be, this also includes clothing made out of recycled plastic bottles. Dr. Mark Browne, an ecologist and postdoctoral fellow at the National Centre of Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California, explains:

“every time a synthetic garment — one made of manmade rather than natural fibers — goes through the spin and rinse cycle in a washing machine, it sheds a large number of plastic fibers. Most washing machines don’t have filters to trap these miniscule microfibers, and neither do sewage plants that are responsible for removing contaminants. So every time the water drains from a washing machine, plastic filaments are swept through the sewers and eventually end up in the ocean.”

Yet, there are benefits of clothing made out of yarn that is made of recycled plastic bottles – rPET. It might help and capture plastic waste and encourage the recycling process, and rPET yarn production uses less energy than is needed to produce virgin polyester, there are also less carbon emissions released and lest water used. One of the best ways to avoid microfiber release in our waterways is to choose natural and preferably organic fabrics for your clothing, such as, cotton, hemp, bamboo, natural tencel and rayon, etc.

In addition, Alexander Nolte and Oliver Spies, two German surfers and co-owners of Langbrett, came up with the idea of a washing bag that would catch all the microfibers released by your synthetic clothing during washing cycle. The Guppy Friend is the first device that is designed specifically to reduce microfiber pollution. So here you go, choose natural fabrics whenever possible, and when not, use The Guppy Friend, to catch microfibers at the source and before they enter our waterways and oceans.

Baiba Šustere

Baiba Šustere is a writer whose work focuses on mindfulness, health and wellbeing.