You may think that small plastic pieces would not be causing as many problems as the bigger ones. However, research shows, that is certainly not the case. Moreover, the microscopical small pieces of plastics called microplastics are causing a hell bunch of trouble. But what are microplastics anyhow and what trouble are they causing?

What are microplastics?

“Microplastics, small pieces of plastic, less than 5 mm (0.2 inch) in length, that occur in the environment as a consequence of plastic pollution.”

~excerpted from Britannica

Now that we have defined what microplastic is, we will be able to figure out that microplastics can be roughly divided into two different categories.

Firstly, there are primary microplastics. These have been designed to be small to fit their purposes. Primary microplastics are mainly being used in cosmetics (small beads of plastic are called microbeads), textiles (small fibres made of plastic are called microfibres) and the industrial manufacturing industry and find their way directly into the ecosystem either accidentally through leaks, by wearing away through washing or even in many cosmetics by their normal usage. As the microplastics reach the sewers, the sewage plant will be incapable of filtering them; thereby, enabling them to float into rivers and later on into the oceans.

Secondly, there are secondary microplastics. Differently from the primary microplastics, the secondaries have already reached the ecosystems and are caused by exposure to weather and elements to break into smaller pieces.

What harm do they do?

The physical harm that can be done to humans and marine animals by microplastics depends on several factors, like size, shape, type of plastic and the additives in it. Furthermore, the ingestion of microplastics can pave a way for harmful bacteria that has been related to do serious physical harm to marine life. While there is concern about the toxicity of the additives in the plastic, there is bigger distress at the ability of microplastics to, basically, act as a magnet for persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Exposure to persistent organic pollutants (POP) may cause developmental defects, damage to the nervous systems, hormonal effects, chronic illnesses, and cancer. This poses a threat to young humans and animals in particular, as they are more sensitive to the effects. In the Stockholm Convention, POPs have been internationally recognised as a threat to humans and wildlife and therefore,  they have been banned in use, production and trade by the international and legally-binding treaty of the Stockholm Convention in 2004. That to say, very much like their magnets, they persist for a long period of time. It is certainly not good that microplastics can be found everywhere, they have been found in the deep sea, air, soil, in the Arctic, Antarctic and the most remote places.


Now, what does that mean for us, humans, and the environment?

For that let us take a look at our synthetic clothing industry. Our clothing industry is dominated by ‘fast fashion’ products. However, the irony in all that is again that most of our clothing products are made of plastic. Microfibres (<5mm) or Nanofibres  (<100nm) are, frankly, ingeniously woven to clothes. That being said, while the cleverness of our human brain may not seem to know any creative boundaries, we seem to not think of the aftermath of putting synthetic polymer chains that seemingly last forever into clothing that is designed to be thrown away after a short period of time. Anyhow, we found out that this may not be the only problem. Lately, concerns were raised over the microfibres in our clothing, as they rip off in our laundry while washing it.  As explained on your left, the plastic fibres eventually find their way into the oceans and rivers. Here the microfibres may be introduced to the food chain, larvae and small fishes may mistake the little bits of plastic for food and ingest them. The rule of nature will ensure that the human-made polymers will spread in the food chain and find its ways into the marine, air and terrestrial ecosystems.

Finally, it might even end up on our own plates!