Microplastics are filling up our oceans, turning up everywhere from Antarctic ice sheets to the depths of ocean trenches.
What are microplastics?
Several types of microplastics pollute our oceans. The first type is tiny manufactured plastics that are intentionally designed that way. These manufactured plastics are called ‘nurdles’, and are used in factories to make larger plastic products. Other types of manufactured microplastics are tiny microbeads used in products like facial and body scrubs, toothpastes and washing powders.
The second type of microplastic comes from larger plastics breaking down. When plastic bags, bottles and straws break down they keep getting smaller until they can’t be seen, but they stay in the system forever.
Microfibres are the third type of microplastic. These are invisible plastic fibres that are shed from synthetic fabrics like the polyester in our shirts. A 2015 study found that a staggering 250,000 fibers were released in a single wash of just one 500g fleece jacket!¹
Are microplastics dangerous?
We know that fish, and even zooplankton – some of the smallest creatures on earth – are eating more and more microplastics. There’s a real danger that you are eating fish and seafood contaminated by their plastic meals. Recent studies have shown that humans are ingesting microplastics from a range of sources, including shellfish who accumulate and retain microplastics.²
Plastics, once in the ocean, are known to absorb a range of hazardous chemicals. Over time, toxins accumulate onto floating and drifting fragmented plastic debris, and are eventually ingested by marine life.
Research is still lacking on the effects of these chemicals on marine species. Some studies have indicated that plastic may be causing health impacts such as increased liver damage and reduced fertility.³ It’s likely that they are an increasing risk to human health too.
How can we stop microplastics from reaching the ocean?
We urgently need to ban microbeads in household products within Australia. Currently Australia has a voluntary scheme to phase out microbeads, but they are still used in a number of beauty products.
We must also tackle the problem of microfibres. At home, you can use items like ‘cora balls’ to capture microfibres in your washing machine. Some filters for washing machines exist, and it is time they became the norm.
Ultimately, we can all help by avoiding single-use plastic products and products that contain microplastics. Read our tips on reducing your use.
It’s time to turn off the tap and stop the plastic flowing into our oceans. Help us stop plastic at the source by fighting single-use plastics.
- Niko L. Hartline, Nicholas J. Bruce, Stephanie N. Karba, Elizabeth O. Ruff, Shreya U. Sonar, and Patricia A. Holden. (2016). Microfiber Masses Recovered from Conventional Machine Washing of New or Aged Garments. Environmental Science & Technology 50 (21), 11532-11538
- Smith, M., Love, D. C., Rochman, C. M., & Neff, R. A. (2018). Microplastics in Seafood and the Implications for Human Health. Current environmental health reports, 5(3), 375–386. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40572-018-0206-z
- Royte, E. (2018). We know plastic is harming marine life. What about us? National Geographic.