What are Microplastics and Where Do They Come From?

Written by Ollie Wilkinson

the big problem with microplastics

You’re here because you want to know what microplastics are, where they come from, and their impact on the environment. And

You’re here because you want to know what microplastics are, where they come from, and their impact on the environment. And conveniently enough, we’re here because we want to tell you. We know right, what are the chances?

Ever eaten a sausage roll in the passenger seat? Or looked after your mate’s shedding dog for a weekend? The collateral damage these choices inflict on your once-clean car or carpets can be compared to the creation and widespread impact of microplastics.

Only, rather than starting with a tasty treat or furry friend, they’re formed by yet another pesky pollutant, also known as our arch nemesis, plastic.

If you think of plastic as a colossal confetti gun, microplastics are the army of tiny-yet-powerful pollutants it scatters across our earth, ocean and atmosphere. Tough, angry and hard to spot, they’re essentially plastic but with small man syndrome.

Ready to learn more about what these tiny particles are and how they affect you and our planet? Our blog is a breakdown of everything you need to know about microplastics, including, ironically, how, when and where they break down.

Definition: What are microplastics?

Micro means ‘extremely small’. And we all know what plastic means. So, when you break it down, microplastics can be defined as minuscule pieces of plastic debris. Most commonly known as a consequence of plastic pollution, microplastics are less than five millimetres in diameter. This is only four times as wide as a single grain of sand. It’s also 0.003% the height of Danny DeVito. Who knew?

Labelling microplastics as tiny pieces of plastic is, of course, an all-too-simplified definition. A bit like calling Harry Styles “that bloke off X Factor”. Or Game of Thrones’ Joffrey “a bit of a nuisance”.

They may be mini, but they have a huge impact on the environment, releasing toxins into our soil, air, and water. But more on that later.

Where do microplastics come from?

All materials break down over time, but not all materials are biodegradable. The main cause of microplastics is plastic’s inability to biodegrade at its end of life.

Rather than breaking down into natural, organic materials (like home-compostable packaging), plastic breaks down into long-lingering fragments that are just as bad for the environment as their original form. A bit like the Spice Girls and their solo careers.

Microplastics are formed when plastic fragments break away from larger pieces of plastic. This could be plastic waste weathered by wind pressure, landfilled litter disintegrating in waterways, shed microplastics from washing your clothes, or brittle bits of a bottle slowly melted and warped by the sun.

Considering just 12% of plastic is recycled (according to the Big Plastic Count results), and that the rest takes up to 500 years to break down, the possibilities of where microplastics come from really are endless.

What’s the biggest source of microplastics?

Paint is the largest source of microplastics in the ocean, according to a study by Environmental Action. Over a third of your average bucket of latex paint is made of plastic, and this amounts to three million tonnes of microplastics leaking into the ocean each year.

Other hefty causes of microplastic are:

  1. 1. Dust created from weathered, heated and eroded polymers found in tyres
  2. 2. Cheap synthetic textiles like polyester, acrylic and nylon
  3. 3. Particles created from the breakdown of plastic packaging
  4. 4. Pellets that spill and escape during the manufacture of plastic products

Microplastics swarm across the planet like an angry army of teeny-tiny hornets. According to the World Population Review, these are the world’s worst offenders of microplastics in the ocean:

  1. 1. Philippines (356,371 tonnes per year)
  2. 2. India (126,513 tonnes per year)
  3. 3. Malaysia (73,098 tonnes per year)
  4. 4. China (70,707 tonnes per year)
  5. 5. Indonesia (56,333 tonnes per year)

Types of microplastics

There are two types of microplastics:

  1. 1. Secondary
  2. 2. Primary

And if you’re having flashbacks to your school days, you’re on the right track. Because primary microplastics arrive at the beginning. Secondary, on the other hand, is when things start to break down.

Primary microplastics are microplastics that are purposefully created for commercial use. These manufactured microplastics include pellets and microbeads that can be found in clothing, cosmetics and care products.

Secondary microplastics are the more well-known villains of the MCU (or what we like to call, the microplastic-contaminated universe). These are created as a result of plastic pollution when larger plastics break down over time.

Examples of primary microplastics

primary vs secondary microplastics
  • • Plastic microfibres in nylon
  • • Tiny plastic threads in fishing nets
  • • Plastic pellets used to create food wrappers. These are known as nurdles (not to be confused with the popular daily word game that took over our lives in 2022). Up to 23 billion nurdles end up in the ocean each day from the EU alone.

Sources of secondary microplastics:

It may only take a few seconds to chuck it in your trolley, but the environmental impact of single-use plastic packaging lasts more than a lifetime. That’s why our eco-friendly milkround swaps pollutant plastic for sustainably packaged groceries, delivered to your door.

Check out our Life Cycle Analysis to discover why returnable glass bottles are more eco-friendly than plastic.

What’s so harmful about microplastics?

24 trillion pieces of microplastics are in the ocean with 14 million tonnes of microplastics sitting on the seabed

Worryingly widespread and doggedly durable, microplastics are harmful because they release toxins and contaminants all over the world, from the deepest ocean trenches to the highest mountains. Microplastics are also thought to be vectors for transmitting diseases, posing potentially serious health risks when inhaled and digested by humans.

The human impact of ingesting and inhaling microplastics remains limited to scientific theory until experts can make more well-founded conclusions. But there have also been stark warnings of microplastics’ impact on the environment, with experts claiming this type of debris pollutes soil, water and ecosystems.

A 2018 study by Forschungsverbund Berlin found “the impact of microplastics in soils, sediments and the freshwaters could have a long-term negative effect on terrestrial ecosystems throughout the world.” This is because of the threat to wildlife and natural resources, with microplastics triggering adverse effects in animals’ habitats, air, food chains and digestive systems.

Despite being absolutely everywhere, microplastics are incredibly difficult to remove from the planet, and harder to identify than Where’s Wally at a Sunderland home game. These particles are the scrapings of plastic waste and pollution, and are as tiny and stubbornly powerful as a nap-starved toddler.

Microplastic facts and stats

  • • 14 million tonnes of microplastics sit at the bottom of the ocean (Harvard University).
  • • There are 24 trillion pieces of microplastics in the ocean – the equivalent of 30 billion half-litre water bottles (Kyushu University)
  • • Microplastics have been found in human lungs and bloodstreams, and can even reach your brain (BMC)
  • • Humans eat a credit card’s worth of microplastics per week (University of Newcastle)
  • • One shower can release 10,000 microplastics into UK wastewater (House of Commons)

Are humans eating microplastics in food?

humans eat one credit card's worth of plastic per week

You’ve probably seen the headlines about microplastics found in human blood, lungs and bottled water, right? Despite never being seen on a menu or shopping list, humans digest at least 50,000 plastic particles per year. And we’re not just eating microplastics in food. We’re inhaling them, too.

These tiny particles are buried in our soil, swimming in our waters, and floating in the air we breathe. We’re making a meal out of this level of microplastic exposure – quite literally, with studies suggesting we inadvertently eat five grams of plastic per week. But how is microplastic getting into our bodies?

Microplastics escape into food and water in several ways, including:

  • • Heat exposure through rapid temperature changes – like freezing or microwaving food in plastic containers
  • • Being eaten by animals in our food chain, with fish heavily exposed to billions of microplastics in our ocean
  • • Leaching from plastic packaging – research suggests 93% of plastic-bottled water is contaminated with synthetic polymer particles
  • • The breakdown of plastic waste in landfills and the ocean, which then slips back into our waterways
  • • Dust from synthetic products like artificial grass, tyres and footwear drifting into food factories and even straight into our lungs

Now you may be thinking, So what? I chow down on 20 spiders in my sleep too, according to that bloke at the pub. What’s the big deal? 

The spider thing is actually a common myth that’s been debunked by many doubters. But the truth about digesting microplastics isn’t quite as clear, with research still being carried out into the potential harm to humans.

This leads us nicely onto our next section.

Are microplastics harmful to humans?

Scientists have been digging into the dangers of microplastic exposure for decades. And in terms of exposure and quantity, the results make for alarming headlines. But research is still ongoing in terms of how harmful microplastics are when we inhale and ingest them.

We know roughly how many microplastics we’re exposed to, and the depths to which they’ll travel within the human body. But what we don’t know are the real health costs of eating a credit card’s worth of plastic each week.

A 2021 report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) deemed that “the evidence is insufficient to determine risks to human health”. However, WHO went on to say, “it is clear that human exposure to NMP (nano & microplastic) is ubiquitous” and “a reduction in exposure can only have widespread benefits for humans and the environment.”

The same report found that inhaling high concentrations of nano and microplastics can result in oxidative stress, inflammation and DNA damage, but the evidence is unclear about whether these effects are “reversible after elimination of exposure”. In other words, after the microplastics make their way through your digestive system and out the other end.

While WHO understandably won’t speculate on microplastics’ threat to human health, other researchers and scientists have theorised that they can irritate cells, inflame tissue, damage respiratory systems and carry toxins into the body.

Microplastics contaminate and pollute the environment, so we know that having them in our bloodstreams and lungs isn’t exactly going to give us that lovely health kick we’re looking for. But we’ll need to wait for the boffins and brainiacs to dig further into the data before we can talk about solid facts.

Effects of microbeads on the environment

Microbeads are a primary microplastic used to manufacture personal care products like cosmetics, detergents, body washes, facial scrubs and toothpaste.

Non-biodegradable and less than five millimetres wide, these tiny spheres can easily slip through sewage filters and remain in our oceans and waterways for up to 10,000 years. Consider this the next time you think those two minutes brushing your teeth are dragging!

Microbeads harm the environment because they don’t degrade, dissolve or evaporate. And just like any other microplastic, they’re incredibly difficult to spot, capture and get rid of due to their tiny size. This means that they absorb and release chemicals into our soil and oceans for thousands of years.

A danger to biodiversity, ecosystems, wildlife and our health, microbeads clog up oceans and animals’ digestive systems. And there are trillions of them scattered across the planet, making it easy for them to slip into our bodies via waterways and food chains.

According to the House of Commons, your morning shower could release 10,000 plastic particles into UK sewage systems. And that’s before you’ve brushed your teeth, scrubbed your face and put your makeup on.

The Netherlands was the first nation to banish this type of microplastic in cosmetic products. In 2018, the UK joined them and several other countries in prohibiting microbeads.

“Microbeads might be tiny, but they are lethal to sea creatures and entirely unnecessary,” Health Secretary Michael Gove said at the time. “We have led the way in banning these toxic pieces of plastic, but this is by no means the end in our fight.”

How can we get rid of microplastics?

Getting rid of microplastics is incredibly difficult and expensive. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack, if the needle was the width of a strand of hair and the haystack was the ocean. And most techniques to “get rid of” microplastics only actually filter and separate them, rather than eliminating them entirely. This results in microplastic leftovers that continue to pollute food chains and ecosystems elsewhere.

Scientists are working on methods to destroy microplastics, without creating or needing pollutant chemicals. Electrolytic oxidation, for example, uses electrodes to attack microplastics. However, despite being reusable, these electrodes don’t come cheap.

How to avoid microplastics

It’s much easier to avoid microplastics than it is to destroy them. In the same way it’s easier to avoid stepping in dog poo than it is to clean it off your shoe.

20 tips for avoiding microplastics:

In a twist everybody saw coming, avoiding microplastics can be as easy as avoiding plastics. Something we’ve grown very accustomed to on our plastic free milkround

Here are our top 20 tips for swerving microplastics:

  1. 1. Buy your fresh milk in returnable glass bottles (rather than single-use plastic)
  2. 2. Get an eco-friendly, plastic free water filter for your tap water
  3. 3. Use reusable shopping bags rather than plastic ones
  4. 4. Buy organic clothes free from synthetic polymers and plastics
  5. 5. Make the most of plastic free cosmetics like reusable makeup wipes
  6. 6. Swap your shower gels and shampoos for plastic free, sustainable bars
  7. 7. Use eco-friendly alternatives to clingfilm and don’t microwave food in plastic Tupperware
  8. 8. Air dry your clothes
  9. 9. Freeze food in beeswax wraps rather than plastic
  10. 10. Buy fruit and veg in home-compostable, recyclable paper bags
  11. 11. Use your washing machine less by only putting on full loads
  12. 12. Get bread and pastries in paper bags (and put an end to single-use plastic containers!)
  13. 13. Carry a reusable water bottle and coffee cup with you to avoid takeaway cups
  14. 14. Store food in plastic free containers (like ones made of glass or metal)
  15. 15. Cut down on the amount of seafood you eat (scientists estimate up to 30% of fish are contaminated with microplastics)
  16. 16. Take public transport when you can (to avoid your car’s tyres wearing down and creating more microplastic pollution)
  17. 17. Use microfibre filters and laundry bags to prevent microplastics from entering wastewater
  18. 18. Streamline your wardrobe (check out the best apps for selling used clothes if you need help doing this!)
  19. 19. Use air filters and regularly hoover your house to prevent microplastic dust particles
  20. 20. Join our milkround to avoid single-use plastic (as well as pesky trips to the shop and food waste!)

How our milkround works

Wondering how the magic happens on our end? Well, we deliver a range of sustainable products as part of our fresh produce delivery to your doorstep up to three times a week! All you have to do is set up at least one repeat order, pick the delivery dates that best suit you and voila! Your local milkie will soon be on their way with your grocery and milk delivery. Each and every one of our products is delivered in reusable packaging so that we can all do our bit to protect the environment and fight off those pesky microplastics.

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