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What are microplastics?

A close up shot of blue and white microplastics on the end of someone's finger against a royal blue background

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that are less than 5 millimetres in size. These particles are common pollutants found in different environments, including oceans, rivers, lakes as well as the air we breathe. They originate from many sources, including the breakdown of larger plastic debris, microbeads used in personal care products and synthetic fibres from clothing.


There are two main categories of microplastics:  


Primary microplastics: These are microscopic particles that are designed for a specific reason. These particles include microbeads used in personal care items such as face washes and toothpaste, and plastic pellets that are used in production processes.


Secondary microplastics: These are made when bigger plastic objects break down. In time, bigger plastic waste is broken down into tiny particles by environmental elements like sunshine, wind and water erosion. These secondary microplastics come from several sources, including fishing nets, bags and plastic bottles.


The Journey of Microplastics:


A turtle  with a plastic bag in it's mouth

Microplastics come from many sources such as plastic debris, microbeads and synthetic fibres. Plastic debris, like bottles and packaging materials, degrade over time and release microplastic particles into the environment.


Microbeads found in facial scrubs and toothpaste are washed down drains and make their way into water bodies. Synthetic fibres released from clothes when they’re washed end up in wastewater systems and find their way into water bodies through drainage.


Microplastics can enter water bodies both by air and water.  Plastics stored on land surfaces can break down and make their way into rivers, streams and the ocean through a process known as atmospheric deposition.


Deposition happens when wind or rainfall brings the particles into the atmosphere, depositing them into aquatic environments. In aquatic ecosystems, water currents play an essential role in the long-distance transport of microplastics. Human activities like fishing, shipping and boating also contribute to the spread of microplastics in bodies of water.

how do Microplastics Impact the Environment?


microplastics washed up on a beach

Microplastics are a major problem in oceans, rivers and lakes and cause detriment to animals and plants. Small pieces of plastic can enter the food chain by accumulating in the bodies of animals which are later consumed by humans. 


Microplastics cause also major problems for marine animals of all sizes. Some creatures consume microplastics whereas others are affected within their habitats.    

Microplastics and Human Health:


Microplastics can enter the human body through the consumption of contaminated food and water. Additionally, drinking water, including tap and bottled water can contain microplastic particles originating from many sources.


The health risks related to microplastics are under constant study and potentially have toxic effects. Current research shows several concerns, including:


·         Microplastics can carry harmful chemicals and pollutants like pesticides and heavy metals on their surfaces. When ingested, these chemicals can seep into our bodies' tissues and have serious effects on health.


·         The small size of microplastics allows them to enter biological hurdles, such as the gastrointestinal system, and grow in body tissue. This buildup of microplastics can cause problems including inflammation and significant tissue damage.


·         Nanoplastics inhaled during pregnancy can infiltrate foetal tissue and may also have an impact on brain function, potentially contributing to Parkinson’s disease risk and progression.  


New Research Findings:


According to new research published on 8th January 2024 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Columbia and Rutgers Universities carried out a study and found tiny particles called nanoplastics in bottled water, with numbers ranging from 110,000 to 400,000 particles per litre. The average number of nanoplastic particles per litre was calculated to be 240,000. This was up to one hundred times more plastic particles than seen in previous studies. Polyamide and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) were the most common types of nanoplastics detected.


Nanoplastics are synthetic polymers with dimensions ranging from 1 nm to 1 μm and are invisible to the human eye. They’re directly released into the environment or secondarily derived from plastic disintegration and differentiate from microplastics because of their size. Microplastic particles aren’t the end products of plastic waste, nanoplastics are once they’ve decomposed from microplastics.   


In conclusion, the presence of nanoplastics in bottled water raises significant concerns about the quality of water being delivered. Reducing plastic consumption becomes crucial. By opting for alternative sources of water, and using filtration systems, we can significantly decrease our reliance on single-use plastics.


Investing in these sustainable solutions not only safeguards our well-being but also reduces the frequency of plastic waste breaking down and subsequently entering bodies of water.

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