Microplastics are any piece of plastic less than 5mm in length. They can originate from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic, the release of microfibers from synthetic clothing or from cosmetics containing microbeads. Approximately 90% of microplastics can be removed with standard water treatment procedures but this still allows for 10% to be released into the environment via treated water and sewage sludge.
Plastics are often used to seal shut tea bags (meaning that most tea bags can’t be composted). Recent studies have shown that we are also drinking these microplastics when enjoying a nice cup of tea, which could seriously affect our health. Thankfully, loose teas appear to be coming back into fashion anyway. Even better, both Barry’s and Lyon’s have committed to making their tea bags plastic free ASAP.
Many people are now aware that cosmetic products can contain microbeads. They are often used for scrubbing; scrubbing teeth, scrubbing faces, scrubbing legs. It is still possible to get your scrubbing-action from other sources – salt or sugar, for example, or a nice face cloth. Microbeads may be a little tricky to notice in the ingredients, as more than 500 of the listed ingredients could be plastics. Some of the easy ones to identify are polyethylene, polypropylene and polyurethane.
Clothes are commonly made from polyester, acrylic and nylon, all of which are plastics. Natural fibers include cotton, linen and wool. Each time an item of clothing is washed, thousands of microfibers are released. A study found that over 70% of the plastic debris found in watercourses was microfibers released from fabrics. This can be avoided by opting for clothes made of natural fibers, using a Guppy Friend Bag (wash your clothes in one and it will trap the microfibers) and washing your clothes less. Buying second-hand clothes reduces the social and environmental pressure of fast fashion even more.
Aisling Kennedy – Science Writer