Plastic is everywhere and in everything. It’s used as packaging, it’s in food service products, and it’s in clothing. All told, Americans generate more plastic waste than any other country in the world, 91% of which is landfilled or incinerated. In fact, the U.S. throws out enough plastic every 15.5 hours to fill the Dallas Cowboys stadium, and that amount is increasing.
Often when talking about plastic pollution, the images that come to mind are turtles snared in bags or straws, massive trash gyres in the Pacific Ocean, or whales washed ashore with hundreds of pounds of plastic waste in their stomachs. It may not be surprising that studies found 59% of all seabird species had ingested plastic, with that number expected to rise to 99% by the year 2050.
However, litter and marine debris alone don’t capture the full scope of our plastic pollution problem. Research suggests that we could be not counting 99% of the plastic that makes its way into the ocean. That’s because plastic doesn’t degrade in the environment like an apple or a piece of paper, instead it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics.
Microplastic is plastic less than 5 mm in length, or smaller than a grain of rice. They’ve now been found in the deepest depths of the ocean, on the highest mountains in the world and everywhere in between.
How did they get there? Microplastics don’t arrive in the environment from just one source. Here are some of the main, known sources of microplastic pollution:
- Microbeads: Small plastic beads used in personal care products.
- Synthetic Fibers: Tiny fibers shed from synthetic clothing, textiles, and washing machines into wastewater infrastructure that treatment plants are unable to fully filter out.
- Packaging: Broken down fragments of plastic packaging.
- Industrial Processes: Small plastic particles generated during manufacturing.
- Weathering: Breakdown of plastic debris due to UV radiation, temperature changes, and physical stress.
- Road Dust: Wear and tear of tires and road paint containing plastic materials can be swept into waterways.
- Waste Disposal: Disintegration of plastic waste in landfills and the environment.
- Nurdles: The raw feedstock that is used to make new plastic items are lost by the millions every year.
A growing area of concern regarding our plastic waste is the environmental and public health threat posed by these microplastics. They are severe suffocation and starvation hazards to wildlife and have been found in our air, food, and bodies. Microplastics also attract pollutants that may already exist in the environment at trace levels, accumulating toxins like DDT & PCBs and delivering them to the wildlife that eat them, often bioaccumulating through the food chain.
How can we stop microplastic pollution?
In order to stop the influx of microplastics into the environment, we need to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic we are producing. That is going to take big changes on the local, state and national level.
- Congress should pass bills like the federal Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which includes a strong national ban on single-use plastic bags, polystyrene and other polluting single-use plastic products.
- State legislatures should ban the sale and use of wasteful single-use plastics like grocery bags, single-use polystyrene (aka Styrofoam) takeout containers and cups, packing peanuts, coolers and other product packaging.
- State legislatures should pass a producer responsibility law that makes manufacturers of packaging responsible for dealing with the waste their products will become.
- Communities and legislators should oppose measures that double down on the fossil fuel-to-plastic or plastic-to-fuel pipeline and that incentivize the creation of new plastic.
- State and local governments should pass laws preventing overstock clothing from being sent to landfills so that clothing manufacturers and retailers stop producing more clothing than we could ever need. Fast fashion companies should also make this commitment themselves.
- Cities should develop green infrastructure and stormwater programs to help stem the tide of plastics and microplastics being washed into our waterways and greater environment.
- State legislatures should require filters on all new washing machines to prevent microplastics from ending up in our waterways.
- Companies that use and sell a lot of single-use plastic products–like grocery stores, online retailers, and fast food chains– should phase out wasteful single-use plastics.
How can you avoid microplastics?
As we are working to pass policies to reduce plastic production and pollution, here are some things you can do to lower your exposure to microplastics and your contribution to this growing problem:
- Buy clothing and textiles made of natural fibers.
- Install a microplastics filter on your washing machine.
- Avoid microwaving your food in plastic.
- Drink filtered tap water– (Tap water is found to have less microplastics than bottled water).
- Avoid soaps and other beauty products that contain microbeads.
- Use glass or metal reusable containers and packaging whenever possible.
- Make your voice heard by supporting efforts to eliminate wasteful single-use plastic products and other policies to reduce plastic pollution.
State Director, Environment Oregon
As director of Environment Oregon, Celeste develops and runs campaigns to win real results for Oregon's environment. She has worked on issues ranging from preventing plastic pollution, stopping global warming, defending clean water, and protecting our beautiful places. Celeste's organizing has helped to reduce kids' exposure to lead in drinking water at childcare facilities in Oregon, encourage transportation electrification, ban single-use plastic grocery bags, defend our bedrock environmental laws and more. She is also the author of the children's book, Myrtle the Turtle, empowering kids to prevent plastic pollution. Celeste lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and two daughters, where they frequently enjoy the bounty of Oregon's natural beauty.