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When It Comes to Microplastics, Size Matters!



When It Comes to Microplastics, Size Matters!

Plastic is an easily detectable litter that takes many visual forms as you walk along the ocean or ride your bike down the street. What once wrapped your sandwich, contains your shampoo, holds the ink in your writing utensil or brushes your teeth will live much longer than you. In fact, every plastic button on every shirt ever manufactured will outlive you. That is, unless these items are recycled; according to the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances, however, only about 9 percent of all U.S. plastic waste from 2012 – 2015 has been recycled.

In recent years, the scope of plastic waste and litter is truly coming to light. Plastics that are synthetic (not plant-based) do not decompose. When sunlight strikes the surface of synthetic plastics, UV rays cause plastic to become brittle in a process called photodegradation, which breaks down large pieces of plastic into tiny bits over time. Plastic pieces that are less than five millimeters in length, as described by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are termed microplastics, and are shedding light on the new frontier of plastic waste.

Microplastics are a growing concern in the oceans and rivers that vein the globe, and not just as surface-dwelling debris. Microplastics are easily mistaken for food by wildlife, and have been found in stomachs along the food chain from plankton to whales. Animals ingesting plastic may experience internal damage and buoyancy issues that can have fatal impacts.

When It Comes to Microplastics, Size Matters!

Plastic manufacturing includes chemical additives to increase durability, flexibility and transparency to the product; these chemical additives, also known as phthalates, or plasticizers, migrate and leach from plastic over time, and are continuing to be studied for adverse health and reproductive effects. These additives are found in water systems, wildlife and, as a result, humans. According to the EPA, the highest rate of exposure to phthalates in humans is through food ingestion.

Though this human invention carries significant negative impacts, it is a notable occupant of economic development. Plastic has made many valuable items cost-accessible for generations, and is here to stay in the foreseeable future. Humanity has found a home in plastics — literally! The use of plastic is embedded in products from fabrics and clothing, building materials, containers and beauty products to intricate pieces in nearly everything manufactured and sold today.

As plastics continue to accumulate, awareness of the ecological repercussions continue to grow, but some relief is underway: innovative studies by the scientific community; encouraging politicians to take preventative roles (such as the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 by President Obama, banning the manufacturing of microbeads); cities condemning plastic grocery store bags; and the all-important role of the individual to consider their plastic footprint. 

Five tips on reducing your plastic footprint:

  • Carry a reusable water bottle
  • Bring containers to restaurants for leftovers
  • Ask for no straw when purchasing beverages
  • Switch to a biodegradable toothbrush


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