By now, the woes of plastic are common knowledge: it’s wasteful, hard to recycle, and can harm the environment in myriad ways. Much like combustion-engine vehicles, plastic use is often a target for change, since it’s so prevalent in our everyday lives. More recently, the conversation has included an even more problematic component to this pervasive material: microplastics.   

What are microplastics? 

Though the meaning is in the name – small, even microscopic particles of plastic – there are actually two different components. First, there are the plastics created intentionally small, such as the so-called “microbeads” used for exfoliation in some toothpastes or facial cleansers. There’s been a lot of buzz around these particles specifically, since they wash easily down the drain, end up in our waterways, and are difficult to capture or track.  

The second aspect of microplastic refers to pieces that break down or shed from a larger plastic product – think of twist-ties on loaves of bread, or bits of a plastic bag ripped in the recycling process. When we drive, microplastic particles from tires are even shed into the atmosphere, most of them too small to see with the naked eye. 

Layers of harm 

We already know that plastic is difficult to reuse and recycle, and even products that are technically recyclable are often not, due to lack of proper infrastructure. Thus, microplastics pose even more of a challenge, since in most cases, we can’t even capture them to dispose of, let alone reuse or recycle. They flow easily into our water, are carried by the wind into our natural environments, or – even more concerning – end up in our bodies 

This happens in a variety of ways, from things like eating out of a plastic container, using plastic kettles and baby bottles, or even just inhaling microscopic particles that float through the air. Though it makes sense that these tiny particles can end up being ingested, what’s concerning is that we don’t have enough long-term research about the impact it has on humans and animals (many species, such as fish, have been found with microplastics in their system). There is some evidence that compounds used in plastic and microplastics can be disruptive to the endocrine system (which regulates our hormones), but as far as ongoing exposure to microplastics, there’s still a lot we don’t know. 

What can we do? 

Since microplastics are hard to track, let alone study, the situation can look pretty bleak. But if anything, this should be even more motivation to stop using and producing so much plastic, and in turn, stop generating microplastics. That means not only making the shift in our daily lives away from plastic products, but continuing to demand better from producers and those in power. There’s also the need for more information, which can help us determine the impact microplastics are having; California recently introduced legislation that helps measure microplastics in the ocean. 

In terms of technological advancement, there’s the case to be made for biodegradable plastic, a frontier that many companies are throwing resources behind. However, it’s crucial that global standards are developed for the compostability of these plastics (some of which has been developed in the U.K.), to ensure these claims are not greenwashed.  

Our plastic problem is massive, and microplastics have an outsized impact – it’s important that they’re not left out of the conversation and efforts for change.