What you need to know about microplastics

Over the last decade, our understanding of microplastics and the devastating impact they have has grown considerably. Despite this awareness, microplastics are continuing to increase in our environment creating immeasurable damage to our ecosystems, wildlife, and even to our own health.

This week, we wanted to bring awareness to the issue of microplastics – how they’re created, some of the problems they’re causing, and most importantly what we can do to prevent them from occurring.

What are microplastics, and how are they formed?

Microplastics are tiny fragments of plastic that are less than 5mm. They are formed from the breakdown of larger plastics. Take for instance a plastic water bottle; if this ends up in the ocean, the force of the waves and sun exposure will weather and weaken the bottle until it starts to break down into smaller and smaller pieces. 

What is the danger of microplastics?

Researchers have known about microplastics for quite some time, but the dangers that they pose is only now becoming more apparent, and we can still only speculate about their long term effects.

National Geographic reported that experiments have shown “microplastics damage aquatic creatures, as well as turtles and birds: They block digestive tracts, diminish the urge to eat, and alter feeding behavior, all of which reduce growth and reproductive output. Their stomachs are stuffed with plastic, some species starve and die.”

Birds will fly for miles over the ocean to gather food that they’ll feed their young. However, many birds are unable to identify the difference between a piece of plastic and a fish for food, or the fish could have ingested plastic, in which case the bird will also consume this and then pass it onto their offspring.

Photograph: Dan Clark/USFWS/AP

The same way that microplastics are ingested by wildlife, they are also easily consumed by people. In 2019, The WWF uncovered the results of a study from the University of Newcastle in Australia which found we’re consuming about 2000 tiny pieces of plastic every week. That’s approximately 21 grams a month, just over 250 grams a year.

Image from WWF

What are some of the ways you can prevent or reduce microplastics?

  1. Use long-lasting reusable materials – for instance, trading up your plastic water bottle for a metal reusable one, or usable cutlery and straws as opposed to single-use ones.
  2. Air dry your clothes – when you put your clothes in a dryer, small microfibers come loose. These can then get in the air and water.
  3. Recycle properly – Poor recycling leads to contamination, which in turn leads to more products going to landfill. We wrote a little blog on the problems with wish cycling and to avoid it – here.
  4. Support bans on single use plastics – in Australia we’ve seen some amazing laws coming into effect banning single use plastics. The more people in the community who get behind and support these initiatives, the more inclined local governments will be to bring bans like this into effect. Read more about WA’s recent ban on single-use plastics here
  5. Participate in Beach Clean Ups – A lot of our plastics sadly make their way into waterways and into the ocean. That’s why volunteering your time to get involved in beach cleanups is an amazing way you can make a difference. 

Feel free to reach out with ways you’re reducing microplastics! If you’re looking for more ways to recycle things that aren’t accepted in your kerbside recycling, check out our free national recycling programs in Australia and New Zealand.

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