We hear about them a lot in the news, but what are microplastics?
Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that are typically less than 5 millimeters in size, often much smaller. They are a result of the fragmentation and breakdown of larger plastic items, such as bottles and bags, or they can be intentionally manufactured at a small scale for certain products. These particles can be found in a variety of environments, including oceans, rivers, soil, and even the air.
There are two main types:
1. Primary Microplastics
These are particles that are intentionally produced at a small size for various purposes. Examples include microbeads in personal care products like exfoliating scrubs and toothpaste, as well as microfibers released from synthetic textiles during washing.
2. Secondary Microplastics
These are particles that result from the breakdown of larger plastic items due to exposure to environmental factors such as sunlight, waves, and physical abrasion. These larger plastic items can fragment into smaller and smaller pieces over time, eventually becoming microplastics.
Microplastics have gained significant attention due to their potential negative impacts on ecosystems and human health. They are of concern for several reasons. The first being the environmental impact. Microplastics can enter aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, where they can be ingested by a variety of organisms, including marine life and even land animals. This ingestion can lead to physical harm, reduced feeding efficiency, and potential transfer of these particles up the food chain.
Human Health Concerns are growing rapidly. They can potentially enter the human food chain when consumed by marine life that humans eat. While the direct health effects on humans are not yet fully understood, there are concerns about the potential accumulation of toxic substances on the surface of microplastics and their transfer to humans through consumption.
A third concern which will come as no surprise, is pollution. Microplastics are pervasive in the environment and can now be found in remote locations, including the deep sea and polar ice. The speed at which they have reached these isolated spaces in the natural environment is concerning. It goes to show just how massive the impact of plastic pollution actually is. They contribute to plastic pollution and can have lasting impacts on ecosystems.
Efforts are being made to better understand the sources, distribution, and potential impacts of microplastics. These include research into technologies to reduce microplastic release from products and strategies to mitigate their environmental and health risks.