Microplastics 101

Updated: Nov 2, 2020

Microplastics, we’ve all seen the articles and reports about them plaguing our oceans. But how are they formed and what makes them so detrimental to the marine world? – Well this post is will cover this and hopefully, when you finish reading it you will know all there is to know about microplastics and spread the word!

What are mircoplastics?

Microplastics are plastics with a diameter of less than 5mm, meaning some can’t be seen with the human eye! They are split into two categories: primary and secondary. Primary microplastics are plastics that are purposely made to be less than 5mm, they are most commonly found in face washes (these are called microbeads and should be avoided at all costs!!!) and in industrial cleaners. Secondary microplastics are made from larger plastics breaking down into smaller pieces. Plastics are entering the oceans from beach litter, waste dumped from boats and litter blown from the land into the seas. A whopping 280 million tonnes of plastic is entering the oceans each year!! These are the types of microplastics that we can help reduce by using/throwing away less plastic (check out our other post on for some hints and tips on how to reduce your plastics waste!).

Where do microplastics come from?

So, how does plastics, a material that is supposed to stick around for centuries end up breaking down into so many tiny pieces? Larger bits of plastics have a larger surface area, it's this larger surface area that makes them vulnerable to things like UV radiation, physical abrasion and waves. Once they have broken down into smaller pieces they become less affected by these factors, this is one of the reasons microplastics have a life span of over 500 years. One of the most surprising causes for the release of microplastics (at least to me!) is from washing your clothes! A lot of clothes nowadays are made from plastic derived materials such as Lycra, polyester, nylon and viscose, as they are strong and cheap to produce. This, however, comes with a price! Every time you wash clothing made of these materials, they breakdown and release fibres which eventually end up in the ocean. A 6 kg wash can release a massive 728,000 plastic fibres!

Microplastics found while carrying out my MSc dissertation in Greece. The second photo is my own finger covered in plastic fibres!

Why are microplastics bad news for the ocean?

These tiny pieces of plastic are in the ocean, but if they are so small why does it matter? Their small size is exactly what makes them so dangerous! Microplastics’ size makes them perfect for fish and marine mammals to accidentally ingest them. Many larger marine species (such as manta rays and whale sharks) are filter feeders meaning they take in large amounts of water and then filter out their prey based on its size. Unfortunately, microplastics are a similar diameter to their prey, zooplankton. This has led to plastic contaminating the entire food chain from corals all the way up to the biggest marine creates like whales, they’re even in the food we eat and the water we drink. Microplastics once consumed can slow down growth rates, cause blockages in digestive tracts and affect reproduction! Microplastics have been found in the deepest parts of the ocean. Scientists have discovered crustaceans containing man-made fibres in some of the worlds deepest trenches, it’s terrifying!

Is there any hope?

YES! The amount of plastic in the ocean is heart-breaking especially as we are the sole reason this is happening, but we must not give up! Reducing the amount of plastic you use and making sure the plastic you do use is disposed of in a sustainable way (many plastics can be recycled and you can check which ones here) will help reduce the amount that reaches the ocean. If you want a more get and go approach beach clean-ups are always a great way to do your bit (beach clean-ups near you can be found online - here is a website for people in the UK). However, if you don’t live near a beach (we don’t, and it makes us very sad) you can pick up plastic you see while out and about or even walking your dog! These may seem like small and insignificant things to combat a huge problem but if done by everyone it could really help make a change. It is never too late to do your bit!

Ruth x

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