- What Are Microplastics
Microplastics are ubiquitous particles of plastic less than 5 mm in size. If they are smaller than 0.1μm they can also be referred to as nanoplastics. They have been spreading through the world since we invented plastic in the fifties. Microplastics can easily pass through water filtration systems and can rarely be seen by the naked eye.
We put them in two categories – primary and secondary microplastics. Primary microplastics can be further divided to microfibers, microbeads and plastic pellets.
Microplastics are heavily present in our digestive tract and a recent study showed 77% of donors had microplastics in their blood. They have been found in the most secluded parts of our world. They make their way to national parks and wilderness areas, even Antarctica and the Moon are not microplastics-free. However, the most affected areas are our oceans.
Every week an average person eats enough plastic to make a credit card.
- Where Do Microplastics Come From
Primary microplastics are released into the environment as plastic particles smaller than 5 mm. They make up for 15-31% of all microplastics in the ocean.
Seven biggest sources of primary microplastics are:
- synthetic textiles,
- marine coatings,
- road markings,
- personal care products,
- plastic pellets and
- city dust.
When driving the friction between the tyre and the road causes abrasion of the tyre. The eroded particles of rubber with artificial additives are suspended in the air or washed away by rain. As much as 28% of all microplastics in the oceans come from tyres.
More and more textiles are made of synthetic materials that shed during washing and find their way into waterways in the form of microfibers. Microfibers make up an estimated 16-35% of microplastics in the oceans.
Unsurprisingly, water traffic is also a major source of microplastics polluting the oceans. Watercrafts are protected from saline water with layers of protective coatings known as marine coatings. These emit somewhere between 9 and 21% of all microplastics in the ocean.
Road markings are the second biggest microplastics polluter directly connected to road traffic. Paint, thermoplastic, resin and tape, most commonly used materials for road markings, all release copious amounts of micro particles.
Microbeads have been used in personal care products for more than fifty years. They are great for scrubbing and are therefore commonly used in exfoliation products, toothpastes and lotions for better effectiveness. They have been banned by several countries including UK but are still a major source of microplastics in the oceans.
Plastic pellets are used in the manufacturing of plastic products and can be spilled in the environment through small or major incidents.
City dust is a name given to a group of sources of microplastics that originate in urban environments. This includes soles of footwear, cooking utensils, building coatings and detergents.
Secondary microplastics come from the breakdown of larger plastic debris in marine environment. They account for the remaining 69-85% of microplastics in the ocean.
Secondary microplastics are extremely degraded, therefore it is hard to pinpoint their source but we can assume they mainly come from the breakdown of plastic bags, bottles and fishing nets. The degradation is the result of the sun’s radiation, ocean waves and other environmental factors.
- Harmful Effects of Microplastics
The topic of microplastics and their effect on us and our environment is still under-researched but what has been discovered is discouraging.
Plastics are ingested through drinks (both tap water and bottled water contain microplastics) and food (mainly sea salt, seafood, honey, sugar and rice), we inhale them and they can penetrate our skin. They then accumulate in the lungs, liver and brain and cause oxidative stress, inflammation and respiratory problems.
A study has shown that even lower concentrations of microplastics increase genomic instability and with that the likelihood of cancer. In another study cells showed cytotoxic sensitivity to microplastics. This explains hormonal changes, developmental disorders and reproductive abnormalities that have been linked to microplastics.
Small organisms can confuse microplastics for food and intentionally ingest them. This can block their gastronomical tracts or trick them into thinking they do not need to eat, causing them to starve to death.
The surface of microplastics is also a great breeding ground for various microorganisms, among those pathogens, and a transport system for toxins.
All of these factors have a major effect on organisms and influence whole ecosystems and through that aid in climate change.
- Possible Solutions and Good Practices
On average 212 grams of primary microplastics are released in the ocean per person each week. That is enough to make a plastic bag. More and more is entering our food chain.
Here are some ways you can help reduce the amount of primary microplastics released in the environment and cut down on exposure to microplastics each day.
- Change your laundry routine. You do not have to wash certain items of clothing after each wear. Wash your pants and sweaters only when necessary. If possible, install a fibre-catching filter in your washing machine (this reduces the amount of fibres in wastewater by 80%), use a microfiber laundry bag (90% effective) and/or use laundry balls that prevent microfibers from breaking off of clothing in the first place (31% effective). Tumble dry as little as possible as the heat and the movement inside the machine loosen the fibres of the clothing that than shed next time you are washing your clothes. Instead opt for air drying your clothes.
- Buy clothes made from natural materials.
- Use public transportation.
- Use cosmetics that do not contain microbeads.
- Drink tap water that contains significantly less microplastics then bottled water (this way you’ll also produce less waste) and filter it if possible.
- Consume less seafood, tea (if you’re using teabags), sea salt, sea weed, milk, beer, soft drinks, rice and sugar.
- Beware of more harmful plastics with recycling codes 3, 6 and 7.
- Don’t wrap food in plastic. Use paper bags and other alternatives.
- Avoid takeaway cups. Even if they are made of paper they have a plastic coating that releases microplastics in your drink.
- Don’t microwave food in plastic.
- Vacuum and dust your house regularly. Use a vacuum with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter.
There have been some imaginative ideas how to remove microplastics from waterways and oceans.
A bubble barrier is a great way to prevent macroplastics from entering the seas but isn’t as effective when dealing with microplastics. It can be installed in rivers and canals and uses a bubble curtain installed at an angle to push the floating waste to the side where it can be caught. It can stop plastic particles as small as 1 mm but everything smaller can easily escape it.
Far more effective for smaller particles is membrane bioreactor technology that pushes water through a filter tiny enough to remove all particles larger than 0.2μm. The downside of this procedure are the considerable amounts of electricity it requires to operate and the fact it does not filter out only plastics but also anything else that happens to be floating in the water.
On the other hand, there is the still developing device that uses ferrofluid to attract microplastics that uses significantly less energy and is surprisingly simple to make. The magnetic liquid is easily removed from the water with magnets and does not interrupt the water’s flow. It could be used on ships to collect microplastics from the ocean or installed in the water pipes inside houses. This method is 87% effective.
Methods using mussels to remove microplastics from water have also been very effective. They are able to filter huge amounts of water in a short amount of time, creating so-called biodeposits that consist of microplastics mixed in with faeces and can be easily collected and disposed of properly. This process does not harm the mussels and since they are natural to the environment there is no damaging side effects to their surroundings. Scientists researching this method are thinking of installing cages of mussels with systems to catch the biodeposits near big factories that release wastewater in the seas and waterways to nip the problem in the bud.
Green algae, specifically Cladophora, are also being looked into as a possible solution for microplastics pollution in bodies of fresh water as they have been discovered to absorb microplastics and tangle with microfibers. However, they have to be removed from the water before they decompose as that results in microplastics being released back into the environment.
- Raising Awareness and Sharing Good Practices
The first step in addressing microplastics released into the Welsh environment should be informing the community of the dangers microplastics pose to them and their surroundings. They should be advised how to minimalize the amount of microplastics they produce in their daily life and how they can avoid them as much as possible.
An informative and interactive website should be created, that would be easy to access and use by older generations and engaging for younger generations. The website should be colourful and should include pictorial representation of the problem that would invoke concern and sympathy.
- Social Media
Different social media should be used to attract attention to the problem and the previously mentioned website. Statistically most popular social media in UK that would be useful for this project are Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube. The approach on each of this platforms would have to be different.
Facebook is used by 66% of the UK population but it’s losing its popularity. While the number of people using Facebook is still increasing its user growth rate is lower and lower. Users over 65 years are the fastest growing demographic on Facebook.
On Facebook a new business Page could be created specifically for this project or the CCW profile could be used. A recognisable vanity URL should be created if a business Page is implemented. In whichever case a regular posting schedule and engaging with the audience are advisable. A link to the website should be included in the about section of the profile or Page.
Instagram is used by 44.5% of the UK population. Instagram is much more popular with the younger members of society, the percentage of users plummeting after the age of 35.
An Instagram profile should be created where stories would be posted regularly and with posts that inform the audience about the issue of microplastics and give tips how to avoid them. A link to the website would be included in the bio.
Twitter is used by 27% of the UK population. A few posts should be made on the CCW Twitter page regarding the microplastics issue and the project.
TikTok is used by 13% of the UK population. It was the most downloaded app in 2021 and is still the fastest growing media channel. It is mostly used by younger generations with 25% of users being 10 to 19 years old.
If an account were created for the purposes of spreading awareness about microplastics regular posting and engaging content should be prioritized. Videos should be short and informative, encouraging the viewers to check out the profile. A link to the website and other social media would be included in the bio.
YouTube is used by 62% of the UK population. Number of users is more or less equally distributed across different age groups.
The content format is much different to previously mentioned social media with longer videos being preferred by the audience, although shorter content in the form of YouTube shorts has been introduced in late 2020. The CCW YouTube channel could be revived for the purposes of this project.
Posts on all of the mentioned social media would consist of pictures and videos that would attract and hold the viewer’s attention with bright colours and a smaller amount of information that would be further explained on the website.
- Flyers and leaflets
Leaflets could either be handed out to people at events or on busy streets or left at cafes, libraries, schools, etc. and flyers could be posted up in areas within 5-mile radius of landfills and waste transfer stations.
Both would explain the problem of microplastics and point passers-by to the project’s social media and the website using a QR code. They should make people concerned by stating the facts (like how omnipresent microplastics are and the effect they have on them and their environment) but also give them hope by giving examples of good practices and again pointing them to the website with more information.
Events could be organised in local libraries and schools that would, again, make people aware of the issue and help them live more eco-friendly by reducing the amount of microplastics they release in the environment and consequently make them healthier. The events would be advertised on the website, leaflets, and flyers and on social media.
- https://diaridigital.urv.cat/en/microplastics-can-deform-cell-membranes-and-affect-their-functioning/ (destabilisation of the lipid bilayer)
- https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0045653521002745 (genotoxicity)
- https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304389421028302?dgcid=author (cytotoxicity)
- https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0300483X21003814 (hormonal changes and reproductive abnormalities)
- https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0045653521023407 (developmental disorders)