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What are microplastics?

by Millicent Hofung |

Plastic can be found anywhere and everywhere — even in the most remote and inaccessible places, from the Arctic to the Mariana Trench (the world’s deepest oceanic trench). The mass production of plastics spiked in the 1950s and has been on the rise since. Today, there’s over 150 million tons of plastic floating in our oceans along with an additional 8 million tons that enter our waterways each year.

Plastic pollution is most often tied to images of the consequences of convenient, single-use plastics like straws or ocean wildlife encircled by six-pack plastic rings. But what about the invisible polluters, microplastics?

For World Ocean Day (June 8), we’re raising awareness of microplastics and the effect it has on the planet; particularly in our oceans. Scientists have gone as far to call plastic pollution “one of this generation’s key environmental challenges”. It’s hurting our wildlife, oceans and there’s a growing concern for potential health risks for humans. Plus, it’s only expected to get worse as plastic production and pollution are expected to increase in the coming years.

 

What are “microplastics”?

Microplastics are pieces of plastic ranging from the size of 1/1000th of a millimeter to 1 mm and can be as large as 5 mm (about the size of a grain of rice). Nanoplastics are even smaller under around 100 nm in size.

 

Where do microplastics come from?

Large volumes of plastic enter oceans each year, polluting the sea, littering beaches and endangering wildlife. Think of single-use plastic items (coffee cup lids, plastic bags, etc.), these plastic fragments don’t ever really go away, over time they’ll break down into increasingly smaller pieces.

They can also come from plastics that were made to be deliberately small, like microbeads in face wash, that when used, get washed down the drain. Or were intentionally added to cosmetic or paint products during the manufacturing process.

Microplastics also include microfibres that are shed from textiles every time they are popped in the laundry.

 

What about plastic in clothing — “microfibres”?

Textiles are the largest contributor to microplastics, accounting for 34.8% of global microplastic pollution. When synthetic clothing (made from polyester, acrylic, nylon, spandex, etc.) is washed, thousands of plastic fibres detach from the textile and release what is known as microfibres (a type of microplastic) into the water. These microfibres are so tiny that they manage to pass through the filtration process in sewage treatment facilities, entering our water systems and inevitably into our rivers, oceans and environment.

Laundry, clothing and textiles may be the biggest opportunity to make change and avoid future contamination of our oceans with microfibres. It’s believed that polyester fibres make up approximately three-quarters of the microplastic pollution in the Arctic and most likely result from textile manufacturing and household laundry.

 

Effect of microplastic pollution on marine life

It is estimated that there are currently 14 million metric tons of microplastic currently sitting on the ocean floor and as much as 35 times that much plastic is floating on the ocean surface. While the most obvious source of plastic pollution comes from larger pieces in the environment that deteriorate and break down, small fragments eventually end up as microplastics too. These tiny pieces of plastic will end up in the deepest parts of the sea, transporting through gravity or current movements.

Microplastics are often mistaken for food and can be eaten by zooplankton — tiny crustaceans that make up the bottom of the ocean food chain, and once they are eaten by other marine animals, it causes a domino of catastrophic effects on the entire marine ecosystem.

Particularly, microfibres can absorb the chemicals present in water and sewage sludge, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and carcinogenic Persistent Organic Pollutants (PoPs), as well as already containing chemical additives from their manufacturing phase (plasticisers, flame retardants, antimicrobial agents, etc.). Ingesting these microfibres can result in gut blockage, physical injury, and other negative implications on growth and reproduction.

Microplastics can throw off the balance of the entire ecosystem, as the impact travels up our food chain and even into the food we eat. It’s said that those who eat European bivalves (mussels, clams and oysters) will ingest over 11,000 microplastic particles each year (!).

 

Are microplastics harmful to humans?

Plastic microfibres aren’t just found outdoors, but inside our homes, like dust on our floors. Of the dust currently floating inside our homes, 33% is made up of microfibres resulting from synthetic textiles. This can settle into the food that we eat and create an entirely new source of microplastic ingestion.

For the first time ever, there’s scientific evidence that shows how microplastics are affecting our lungs — it has the potential to hinder their recovery and development. And there’s also talk about microplastics being found in human placentas!

Microfibres are derived from petrochemicals (meaning they’re extracted from oil and gas materials), carrying carcinogenic and mutagenic chemicals, that can be toxic to humans as they have the potential to cause cancer or even damage our DNA.

There’s still so much more to learn about when it comes to the impact of microplastics on human health but there’s no denying — it’s everywhere — microplastics are in the ocean, consumed by wildlife (and ourselves), in the water we drink and in the air we breathe.

 

What can you do? Tips to prevent microplastic pollution:

  • Use a washing machine filter. Laundry filters and microfibre catchers, like the Guppyfriend, can capture up to 95% of fibres resulting from the washing machine or tumble dryer, preventing them from entering the water system.
  • Swap single-use for sustainable options. By using a single reusable product, you avoid having to use an endless number of single-use versions.
  • Ventilate and vacuum frequently to minimize the amount of microfibres in your home.
  • Choose 100% natural materials (as much as possible) when you’re purchasing, wearing and washing clothing or textiles.
  • Advocate for brands to take responsibility for the products they put on the market. It’s not just about avoiding fast fashion by decreasing demand and consumption, but also changing what materials are used, the way the fabric is processed and a product’s lifecycle — all of which play a role in the amount of microplastic byproduct.

 

What KENT is doing to reduce microplastic pollution

At KENT we’re committed to making minimal, and where possible, a positive impact on the planet through our products and practices. All our products and packaging are composed of organic, natural materials that do not release any microplastics or synthetic byproducts back into the environment.

We ensure that every pair of KENT underwear is durable so it remains out of the landfill for as long as possible. And when it does come to the end of its useful life, we’ve kept a circular system in mind. Our briefs can be composted (certified by LA Compost to take only 90 days!), returning back to earth, becoming future soil and providing beneficial nutrients for the planet and future plants.