What are microplastics?

Microplastics are plastic pieces scattered all over our planet as a result of long-term pollution. Although they are very small at 5 millimeters or less in length, they have already made a large-scale impact on our environment.

Microplastics are a relatively recent discovery, with the term “microplastics” first making rounds in 2004 by marine biologist Richard Thompson. Scientific interest in microplastics had increased in the 2010s after a series of reports had been released estimating the amount of microplastics that have accumulated in our world today, and its potential for destruction on the environment.

Microplastics are made of carbon and hydrogen bonded together in what is known as a polymer chain, but other chemicals can be present on them. There are two distinct types of microplastics: primary microplastics and secondary microplastics. Primary microplastics originate from human manufactured products, especially those made for our bodies, such as makeup and synthetic clothing like polyester and nylon. If you’ve seen tiny beads in your exfoliating scrub, those would be primary microplastics, often marketed as “microbeads.” Secondary microplastics are the results of larger plastics that have undergone weathering, which is when minerals break down after being exposed to various atmospheric conditions, such as high temperatures and strong winds.

Microplastics are a cause for concern due to the fact they are not biodegradable, or environmentally sustainable. Once they are in the environment, there is no way for its parts to break down and blend back into the Earth. Marine ecosystems are especially in trouble, as oceans are where the majority of microplastics accumulate, scientists referring to it as a “plastic soup.” China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam have been reported to dump the most plastic into the sea out of all countries. Because of its underwater ubiquity, aquatic animals can accidentally consume microplastics that can cause a range of health problems. Microplastics have also been found in freshwater, soil, air, and landfills. By 2050, we could see over 12 billion metric tons of fake plastic mountains littered all over our planet.

Thankfully, there have been many solutions proposed to help slow down the accumulation of microplastics. The United Nations Environment Programme has encouraged over a hundred countries to educate their citizens on plastic pollution, and reuse and recycle plastic products as much as possible. The Microbead-Waters Act of 2015 was passed in the United States, effectively ending the production and sale of personal care products containing microbeads. Several other countries have since followed suit, including Canada and the United Kingdom. With more and more people becoming aware of the state of our Earth nowadays, we can work together to mitigate all kinds of environmental concerns.