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What Are Microplastics, and How Do We Reduce Them?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 07, 2021

It is no secret that plastic is everywhere. The plates you eat on, the straws you drink from, the toys kids play with, the fiber of your clothing, and so much more is made of plastic.

Since the 1950s, the world has made billions of tons of plastics, and we keep making more. Plastic is set to quadruple in production by 2050. But with the negative impact that plastic has on your body (not to mention the environment), how can you reduce the presence of these harmful pollutants in your life?

What Are Microplastics?

Microplastics are pieces of plastic that are less than five millimeters in size. Some microplastics start out this small during production. Examples are abrasives for sandblasting in industrial contexts or beads used in facial scrubs. Microplastics can also be made over time from larger plastics breaking apart.

When microplastics are made from natural processes, they keep breaking up until they are like dust. When they become this small, it is almost impossible to tell them apart from the natural environment. These tiny particles are everywhere including the water, soil, and air.

There is even plastic in your food. On average, you probably consume about the same amount of plastic as a credit card every week. The average American probably eats, drinks, and breathes over 74,000 particles of microplastic every year.

What Are the Effects of Microplastic On Your Body?

It is difficult to assess all the effects microplastics have on the human body. There are many different types of plastics, chemical makeups, and different levels of exposure that each person has to microplastics based on lifestyle choices. You can be someone who interacts with just a few plastics or hundreds of plastics in a day.

The three main ways that microplastics could affect you are:

  • Physically. When you swallow or ingest a piece of plastic, it is a foreign object that disrupts your body's natural functions. Larger pieces of plastic can leave your body through elimination but there have been cases where it is absorbed or left sitting in the stomach.   
  • Chemically. Plastics in small pieces can be absorbed into your body and poison you.
  • A conduit for microorganisms. Plastics can be an effective breeding ground for microorganisms. Ingesting plastics with lots of microorganisms is not great for your body because those microorganisms could come with a host of negative physical side effects. 

There is not much research about how microplastics affect the body. It is known that larger pieces of plastic are eliminated through fecal matter and that absorption of smaller pieces is rare.

How to Use Less Microplastic

Many ways to reduce microplastic use come from a larger mindset of weighing out what plastic use makes sense versus what simply generates waste with little longevity.

A plastic-free lifestyle may seem impossible, but every small choice can make a difference. Instead of trying to go cold turkey and beat yourself up when it doesn’t work out, be kind with any progress you make.

Here are a few tips to reduce microplastics in your life:

  • Install alaundry filter. Clothing is one of the world’s largest sources of pollution. Most of your clothing probably has polyester or other forms of microplastics in it. When you wash these clothes, microplastic fiber leaks out into the water. A single load of laundry can release over a million microplastic fibers. In order to combat this, you can install a filter in your washing machine to catch these plastics. Then, you can properly dispose of them. You can also wash your clothes on a lower setting, wash by hand, or try to buy less synthetic clothing.
  • Stop or reduce single-use plastics. If all plastic breaks into smaller pieces and does not biodegrade for many years, think about not using plastics only one time. When you use them, try to make them count. Things like straws, cups, plates, and takeout containers can add up over time. Bring your coffee mug to the coffee shop, sip your beverage with no straw, and try to only buy take-out if it is in a biodegradable container.
  • Use public transportation. Cars are wasteful. Tire rubber breaks down and pollutes the air and is energetically inefficient. By not using a personal car, you can significantly reduce your plastic footprint.
  • Reduce your use of products with microplastic beads in them. Toothpaste and facial scrubs are examples of products that contain microbeads. These beads can pass through filtration systems and travel far distances, even into the water supply. By avoiding these products, you can reduce your own plastic exposure and that of the entire world.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Consumer Reports: “How to Eat Less Plastic.”

Global Citizen: “5 Easy Ways You Can Avoid Microplastics in Your Everyday Life.”

National Ocean Service: "What are microplastics?"

Natural History Musem: “Microplastics: what they are and how can you reduce them.”

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