Microplastics in the Oceans: These 6 Surprising Things are Causing Massive Microplastic Pollution

Photo: Utopia

Microplastics aren’t only a component of exfoliating facial soaps and shower gels. Shocking numbers of everyday products contribute to the problem of microplastics in the oceans by releasing minute plastic particles into the environment.

Fortunately, today, many are aware of the endless array of microplastics contained in numerous cosmetic and care products. Surprisingly enough, a large portion of the microplastics in the oceans and other ecosystems originates from other, rather unsuspecting sources. Many of these sources of microplastic pollution we can easily avoid.

For more info and tips, be sure to also check out Plastic in the Ocean: What Can I Do About Plastic Pollution?

1. Microplastics in the Oceans: Clothes made of Synthetic Fibers

Every time we wash shirts, jackets or sweat pants made of synthetics, these items shed minute plastic fibers. To date, it is still not yet technologically possible to effectively filter these microfibers from wastewater – neither through your washing machine nor via water purification methods. This is how tiny microplastics are channeled out into the ocean or found in the fertilizer made from sewage sludge spread amongst a local farm’s field.

It’s not just sportswear or fleece garments; a shocking number of everyday clothing items are laced with synthetic fibers. Why? They’re cheap. It’s everyday t-shirts, hoodies, leggings and socks – particularly common in the industry for discount apparel.

Microplastic: synthetic fibers(Photo: © Anna Reich - stock.adobe.com)
Synthetic textiles such as polyester shed minute microfibers when they’re washed – and contribute to the billions of microplastics in the ocean.

Always have a closer look at the tag. If you happen to find any mention of the materials polyester, polyamide, polyacrylics, nylon, spandex or microfibers, that’s your signal to move on. There are more sustainable options out there.

It’s highly probable you too have some article of clothing lined with synthetic fibers sitting in your dresser or laundry hamper at home. Be sure to wash these only as needed, as little as possible and use a mild detergent. A 2016 study determined that the use of fabric softeners might lead to the release of an even greater number of microfibers. Try avoiding using fabric softener just to be on the safe side and keep these microplastics out of the ocean. One shot of vinegar has around the same effect.

2. Tires

Car tires are primarily produced using a mixture of natural and synthetic rubber – or in other words: plastic. Tires produced by the well-known tire brand Goodyear for example contain “up to 30 different kinds of rubber, fillers and other ingredients”.

Microplastic tires wear(PHoto: CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay - MikesPhotos)
Microplastic resulting from tire wear may make up a quarter of all microplastic pollution worldwide.

At some point, tires start to wear out due to friction, pressure and heat. When tires start to break down, they release finite particles which then accumulate into a fine particle dust, a massive contributor to air pollution. Wind and rain further transport these minute plastic particles from our streets into the environment – they enter our waterways and eventually become microplastics in the oceans.

Studies have shown that tire wear particles such as these are significant contributors to worldwide microplastic pollution of the environment. An investigation conducted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) determined that tire wear particles could potentially make up a quarter of all microplastic waste pollution present in the environment today. Together with synthetics in clothing, these polluters make up the largest overall source of microplastics in our oceans and on Earth.

The solution? Sadly, the only option left is to keep car rides to a minimum. Car and ride sharing services or public transportation are efficient and sustainable alternatives to the popular habit of driving alone to and from work every day.

3. Glitter: Aluminum-layered Microplastic

Microplastic glitter(Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash.com - Grahame Jenkins)
Makeup glitter contributes to the problem of microplastics in the oceans. It finds its way into waste water every time you wash it off.

It’s a kids’ craft day favorite and an integral part of many girl’s music festival makeup choice. The majority of products marketed as “glitter” are made of or at least contain some amount of plastic. The minute multicolored glitter particles are most often produced using plastic or plastic-layered aluminum. Once they make their way into our ecosystems – i.e. by washing off glittered makeup or after a day of crafting – these tiny microplastic particles begin to pose a serious threat to our ocean ecosystems.

4. Cigarette Butts

„Smoked cigarette filters are the predominant coastal litter item; 4.5 trillion are littered annually, presenting a source of bioplastic microfibres (cellulose acetate) and harmful toxicants to marine environments,“ cites a scientific study published in 2015. Discarded cigarette butts are some of the most commonly found types of trash on the coast and quickly become microplastics in the oceans. In stark contrast to other forms of plastic waste overrunning our ecosystems, cigarette filters are in essence, or should at least be, biodegradable. They’re made of cellulose acetate – a type of wood pulp.

cigarette filters(Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay - sulox32)
Cigarette butts are the most common type of trash found on our planet’s coasts.

Studies show that cigarette filters (depending on their chemical makeup) will eventually break apart and decompose naturally. How long this process takes depends on the precise materials used in production as well as environmental factors. In short: It can take a while.

It is precisely what happens to the microfibers from cigarette filters until this point that poses a problem. The filters can break apart and be consumed by marine animals. In addition to the bioplastic microfibers, used cigarette filers can also contain plasticizers and additives – not to mention the harmful chemicals lodged in the filter from the cigarette smoke itself.

Animals and organisms consuming these spent filters are consuming poisonous material. Comprehensive research examining the effects on particular species and ecosystems has not yet been conducted. However, select studies do support the claim that cigarette filters washed out to sea do indeed pose a serious threat to the health and development of marine life.

The problem: Even though cigarette byproducts are biodegradable, the fibers and other poisonous byproducts are a danger to the environment that should not be taken lightly.  

The solution: Smoking habits are neither healthy nor sustainable – that’s common knowledge. However, smokers can still do their part to limit their impact on the environment by discarding of cigarette butts responsibly – in an ash tray or the garbage – and never on the ground.

 5. Paint and Varnish

Paints and varnishes are two major contributors to microplastic pollution. Many of these products deliberately use microplastic particles in their production – as binding agents, thickeners or for increased surface durability, just to name a few. These particles can be released through the simple action of washing your brush or roller after painting.

Minute plastic particles are added to paints or varnishes (depending on color) in the form of chemicals such as acrylpolymer, polyamide or polyacrylnitrile. According to industry experts, this is primarily the case with water-based paints for walls and ceilings. Microplastics in the oceans and elsewhere in the environment also come from ship paints and other industrial sources as well as road markings.

paint varnish(Photo: © Colourbox.de)
Many paints contain microplastics. These are released into the environment through wear.

The wear of paints and varnishes also releases small microplastic particles into the environment. Researchers in Norway determined that approximately 17 percent of microplastic found in nature might originate from abrasion of ship and building paints and road markings.

It’s clear that these are not the doings of the average consumer and it’s probably safe to assume most of us don’t have a vacation yacht parked in the harbor. However: Whenever you do use paints and varnishes, remember to inform yourself extensively on the chemical makeup of the product and filter out the options which have anything to do with synthetic microplastic particles. There are a great many wall paints made without the use of harmful chemicals and they’re not that hard to find.

6. Microplastics in Cleaning Cloths and Dish Towels

Dishcloths and towels are often made of microfibers or other chemical-based fibers. Dish sponges are also produced with foam plastic and other plastics. These can lose fibers the same way articles of clothing containing synthetic fibers shed material during use or in the wash. From here, they find their way out into our rivers and eventually out to sea and contribute to microplastic pollution.

Dish towels cleaning cloths microplastics(Photo: © fotoduets - stock.adobe.com)
Cleaning and dish towels (along with sponges) often contain plastics.

Cleaning with cotton towels or even fabric remnants is just as effective. Some manufacturers even offer eco-friendly sponges made of cellulose or other natural fibers.

In addition to cleaning and dish cloths, linens and hand towels are also known to contain synthetic fibers. Be on the lookout for more sustainable products made of natural fibers such as cotton and use these instead. These result in less microplastics landing in our oceans and less lasting damage to the environment.

Microplastics in the Oceans: Stay Vigilant

Even if cleaning cloths and dish towels aren’t the largest cause of microplastic pollution of the environment, there are a number of products out there that do contain microplastics which inevitably find their way into our wastewater.

Many of these products containing harmful and stealthy microplastics we can easily avoid – like facial scrubs, clothes made from synthetic fibres and glitter. Remember to be mindful of the contents of the products you buy and use: Research beforehand what a sustainable product of the type you’re looking for should contain (and especially what it should not contain) and check the labels or tags and read them carefully. When in doubt, you can always ask a salesperson at the store for help.

Looking for an easier way to reduce your personal impact to the rise of microplastics in the ocean? Give our guide on Life Without Plastic a read and see for yourself how easy it is to completely eliminate the primary source of plastic pollution by ridding (convenience) plastic from your daily life. Plastic-Free Shopping: 3 Easy Tips for Waste Reduction is also a great start.

Read more: 

Go Plastic-Free: How to use Less in 7 Easy Steps

Melamine: 4 Reasons to Avoid Plastic Dishes

Pacific Garbage Screening Will Remove Tons of Plastic Waste from the Ocean

This article was translated by Evan Binford. You can view the original here: Aus diesen 7 überraschenden Dingen gelangt Mikroplastik ins Meer.

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