If you’re feeling some existential dread regarding climate change, you’re not alone. But it’s also important to remember that it’s not just greenhouse gasses negatively affecting the Earth’s environment. You probably have heard of plastic pollution, and how much of it just kind of ends up everywhere. Some 91% isn’t recycled, and we’re sitting on like 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste. But you’re not here for just any old plastic; if you’re looking up plastic, you probably already know what it’s done to Earth. The term “microplastic” though? That sounds a lot more sinister given those implications. But we should hold up for a hot second; what are microplastics in the first place?
Microplastics have a pretty narrow and clear definition, which is fortunate for its discussion. Simply put, micropastics are pieces of plastic that are 5mm or smaller. And given that they’re so small, they’re literally everywhere. They’re split up into primary and secondary microplastics, which is not a significant distinction that really matters. It’s just whether they started at the microplastic size, or they ended up that way because they broke off of something bigger. If you need help thinking of primary microplastics, think about those glittery bits in your toothpaste and makeup.
Before we continue, do keep in mind that plastic is used in basically everything. Plastics are used as PVC in our plumbing, as nylon in our clothes, and they form the vast majority of our packaging. Almost everything you own is in some way made of or from plastics.
Unsurprisingly, most microplastics end up in the ocean, like most of our plastic in general. They come about because plastic takes forever to degrade. We don’t know how much microplastic is in the environment, it ranges between 15 and 51 trillion individual pieces. The Milky Way is estimated to (generously) have 400 billion stars. So uh yeah, we more likely than not have more plastic bits floating around than we do stars in our own galaxy.
You might also like: What Is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
While microplastics also encompass microscopic plastic bits, some have taken to coining the term “nanoplastics.” Just so you know.
Where Are the Microplastics?
Honestly, you’re going to have a far easier time finding where microplastics are not. They’ve been observed in the food and water we consume, the air we breathe, and even the deepest ocean trenches.
If you’re wondering how we humans get a lot of plastic in our bodies, meet biomagnification. In essence, because pollutants like plastic don’t break down, they end up in progressively higher concentrations the higher up into the food chain you go. That’s why apex predators are under far more threat from plastics than say minnows (they’re still under plastic threat, just not as much for the same reason).
Should We Delete Plastic?
You can’t really flip a switch and delete all the plastic that has ever been used, and will be used. Maybe you use a reusable bag, and a study in Denmark found that you might have to reuse a cotton bag over 7,000 times for the resources and energy used to make the bag equalize the use of one plastic bag. Granted you can save on plastic use with polypropylene bags and the like.
That’s why we put plastic in literally everything, it’s durable, super cheap, and we can basically make it whatever we want.
However, it really doesn’t help that over 40% of plastic is wasted just on packaging. So we might agree that a super cheap and durable material is valuable, wasting upwards 40% on just packaging other things (that are probably made out of plastic too) seems excessive.
Is Plastic Going to End the World?
We can’t really say plastic alone will end the world. We’ve also got carbon emissions and a whole lot of other stuff to contend with. There are a lot of bad things working together to create this blanket badness that is climate change.
While you probably won’t spontaneously combust because you’re peeing BPA, there’s not much of a vector for you to extract all the plastic out of you. Hey, you lived fine with the plastic in you for however many years you’ve been alive, you’ll probably be fine for many years after.
But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the plastic issue. What microplastics tell us, probably more than anything, is that we, the creators of plastics, have completely lost control over plastic. What we will do to regain control of them and the rest of what we have done to Earth remains to be seen.
Want to learn more about Climate Change? We recommend this education quiz: An Introduction to Climate Change.