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What are microplastics?

  • 4 min read

A big threat, from small things

Over the last couple of years, concern over microplastics has grown, from damaged marine species health to contaminated rainwater and food. You may have heard this new term, but do not know how microplastics fit into the larger scale of environmental pollution. So, what are microplastics? And why should we care about microplastics? Let us explain. 

What are microplastics

Microplastics are defined as small particles of plastic that are smaller than 5mm in length. Rather than a type of plastic, the differentiating factor in this definition is the size. 

Where do microplastics come from

The unfortunate news about microplastics is that they come from a variety of different sources, which is part of what makes microplastics such a challenging problem to address. Simply fixing one source or banning microplastics will not solve the problem. The majority of microplastics actually come from other plastic sources that have begun to degrade and have broken apart into smaller pieces. Items like plastic bags, bottles, fishing gear, clothing, and more are all sources of microplastics. While some of these sources may be obvious, others may be less so. 

Microplastics from degrading plastics

One of the primary sources of microplastic pollution is from larger plastics Microplasticsbreaking apart over time. While some estimate it can take plastic up to 1,000 years to fully decompose, during this period, it can break apart, generating microplastic pollution. Alarmingly, plastics are continuing to enter into our water systems at an astounding rate. To provide some scale to the volume of plastics entering our ocean, a recent study by The World Economic Forum found that we are currently dumping approximately 8 million tonnes of plastics into the ocean each year - otherwise thought of like a garbage truck full of plastic each minute. Yet, plastics production shows no signs of slowing down. This trend is further encouraged by fossil fuel companies, behind the scenes, continuing to invest in the production of plastics. Meanwhile, the volume of plastic pollution continues to have a devastating environmental impact on our oceans. 

What are microbeads 

You may have heard about microplastics coming from facial scrubs and body cleansers. Yes, this is another source of microplastics. Intentionally manufacturedpolyethylene plastics that are used in scrubs and cleansers, amongst other products, are known as microbeads. Manufacturers have been adopting the use of microbeads and replacing natural ingredients. Microbeads are not a new phenomenon either, they have been around for decades, but we are only now beginning to see the harmful effects on our environment. Microbeads, like other forms of microplastics, can easily bypass filtration systems and quickly find their way into our water sources and oceans.

Fortunately, awareness has been rising, and in 2015 in the United States, President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, banning microbeads being used in cosmetic and personal care products. A step in the right direction in combatting this source of microplastics. 

Microplastics from synthetic clothing - microfibers

Recently the scientific community has uncovered synthetic clothing as Synthetic Clothinganother significant source of microplastic pollution, otherwise known as microfibers. Microfibers are of the same family of pollution as microplastics but have their origin from synthetic fabrics. Synthetic clothing is any textile that is constructed with manufactured and artificial fibers. Items like fleece, spandex, nylons, etc. all fall into this category. Synthetic clothing has become increasingly popular over the decades due to many of its superior performance attributes. However, recent studies have found that as we wash synthetic textiles that microfibers break loose from the clothing and flow into our wastewater systems, between 124-308mg per kg, according to an article published in Nature. Microfibers have, for a long time, gone unnoticed because they were too small to study. Traditional sampling methods used nets and other sorting methods that allowed microfibers to escape attention. Many microfibers are smaller than 40 microns - what human eye can see unassisted. 

Microfibers also have a devastating impact on our environment, albeit in a very different way. As microfibers are microscopically small, they can easily be ingested by marine life. In addition to severe damage to the animal, the ingestion of these microfibers quickly provides a pathway into our food chain. While research is continuing to evolve and analyze the impact of microfibers more closely, what is clear is that this type of passive plastic pollution is wide-spread and has a far more significant impact that than we may have originally anticipated. 

What’s next

The good news is that there is significant awareness being raised around the subject of plastics and microplastics. While there is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done to tackle the problem of microplastics and its many sources, awareness is the essential first step. Reporting on the scale of our plastics problem as well as opportunities to reduce consumption has become more mainstream, helping to build this awareness. In addition, there are a host of organizations working tirelessly on the many different facets of the problem with microplastics and plastics in general. While there will not be a one-size-fits-all solution, many positive steps are being taken. 

Your part

With all issues concerning the health of the environment, we all play an essential role. Here are ten simple steps that can be taken today to begin to lessen the impact of this type of pollution. They may not all be feasible for everyone, but should nonetheless be considered. 

  1. Consider how you consume. Can you reduce plastics from your daily life? 
  2. Reduce, reuse, and if you can not avoid plastics, then recycle them appropriately.
  3. Opt to wear more clothing made from natural fibers. 
  4. Use a reusable water bottle and ditch bottled water and sugary drinks. Important to note, Tetra packs, like milk cartons and juice boxes, are paper lined with plastic.
  5. Buy foods and cleaners in bulk, if you can.
  6. Buy your produce naked.
  7. If you buy meat or fish, get it from the deli wrapped in paper.
  8. Make your own granola bars, muffins, and snacks to avoid single wrapped and packaged foods.
  9. Try overnight oats instead of cereal from a plastic bag.
  10. Invest in a pair of good shoes and have them repaired instead of replaced. Continual consumption of shoes contributes significantly to our plastics problem.