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Five places you did not expect microplastics to be

Discovering unexpected sources of pollution that endanger life on earth

by Jyothi Natarajan
A pile of multi-coloured plastic straws and their broken pieces

Microplastics have emerged as a growing concern with significant implications for the environment and human well-being. These minute plastic particles, measuring less than 5 micrometers, are omnipresent. They originate from diverse sources, including plastic waste, industrial activities, and the degradation of larger plastic items. Despite their microscopic size, microplastics have far-reaching effects on ecosystems, wildlife, and human health.

In the following article, we delve into what microplastics are, where they come from, and five unexpected locations they might be found.

What are microplastics?

Plastics have been of great advantage in everyday life such as durable containers for food storage, and waste disposal, and packaging. But microplastics generated from them have unfortunately infiltrated many areas of our daily lives. They have become a growing concern due to their pervasiveness and potential health risks.

Microplastics form a significant portion of marine plastic pollution, in proportions outweighing the visible plastic pollutants like tires and flip-flops. These minuscule fragments are drifted within water columns, remain suspended in the oceans, and accumulate extensively on the seafloor- all of which pose multiple threats to marine life. 

Microplastics infiltrate our bodies in multiple ways. They enter our bodies when we inhale, consume foods, and even when we drink packaged water. Their adverse health consequences on our lungs, liver, and brain are still largely unknown, yet likely to be detrimental.

It is important to note that microplastics cannot be effectively filtered out by existing technologies, which exacerbates the challenge and concern surrounding microplastic pollution.

A pile of multi-coloured plastic straws and their broken pieces

Straws turn into microplastics.

Source: Unsplash

How are microplastics formed?

Microplastics are generated through two main processes:

  •  Primary microplastics

These are intentionally created small plastic particles found in commercial products such as cosmetics, and personal care products. Example: microbeads in toothpaste and face scrubs.

  • Secondary microplastics

These are formed naturally as a result of the breakdown of larger plastic objects. This breakdown can occur through various means, including,

  • Photodegradation: Plastic can fragment into smaller pieces when exposed to sunlight.
  • Mechanical breakdown: Physical forces such as abrasion or grinding can cause the plastic to disintegrate into smaller fragments.
  • Biodegradation: Bacteria and microbes break down some plastics, but it’s a slow process taking years.
White plastic  particles washed ashore.

Plastic trash at Mirissa Harbour

Source: Unsplash

Five places you did not expect microplastics to be

1. Laundry Detergents

Approximately 35% of microplastic pollution is attributed to laundry practices. During each wash load, as many as 700,000 microplastics from our synthetic clothing (E.g., polyester, acrylic) can be released into the water system. Detergents used as scouring agents create microfibers, mainly polyethylene or polypropylene while removing dirt from clothes.

2. Cigarettes

Cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic used in production. The cigarette butts when thrown away after smoking continue to release microplastics into the environment. If they enter water streams, they are carried into rivers, lakes, and eventually to the ocean.  In the oceans, cigarette filters function as objects of releasing microplastics perpetually for hundreds of years. This source alone adds more than 300,000 tons of microplastic fibers to the aquatic environment each year.

Multiple cigarettes butts thrown after use

Pile of cigarette butts on top of a bin

Source: Pexels

3. Human breast milk

A 2021 study found microplastics in the breast milk samples of 10 out of 13 mothers, likely originating from their diet. Researchers opine that it can pose risks to the baby’s health. Mothers with higher levels of microplastics in their breast milk were also more likely to have been exposed to sources of microplastics like personal care products and polypropylene and polyethylene, which are used in packaging,

4. Snow and Ice

In June 2022, scientists made a ground-breaking finding by detecting microplastics in recently fallen snow in Antarctica, highlighting the extensive reach of global plastic pollution. Microplastics originate from the atmosphere, transported by wind and precipitation, impacting isolated and pristine regions with microplastic pollution. The researchers collected snow samples from 19 distinct locations on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, and each of these samples contained microplastics.

A frozen lake covered in snow and ice with mountains surrounding

Antarctic landscape with broken ice on water and frozen mounts

Source: Pexels

5. Cosmetics

Microbeads, a type of microplastic, serve as texturizing and bulking agents in cosmetics. During a single use of an exfoliant, the number of microbeads released could range from 4,594 to 94,500. These particles, when washed off, enter wastewater systems and contribute to the contamination of rivers, lakes, and oceans, posing environmental harm.

Cosmetics  and makeup brush set on a table

Makeup Artist Kit with Brushes and colors

Source: Pexels

The widespread presence of microplastics in unusual locations, from oceans to our bodies, highlights the pervasive nature of plastic pollution. Though their health effects on humans need further research, animal studies suggest concerning potential risks with adverse health consequences. To reduce microplastic pollution, a few steps can be implemented immediately such as reducing single-use plastics, selecting microplastic-free products, and proper plastic disposal. These measures will help protect our health and mitigate the environmental impact of microplastics.

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