What is a microplastic? And why is it a problem?

What is a microplastic?

A microplastic is a tiny particle of plastic defined as less than 5mm big. This can be from a tiny, microscopic particle right up to something about the size of a pearl. Sometimes you can see them, often you can’t – this is why its so easy to inadvertently consume them. There are 2 main types of microplastic – Primary & Secondary. Primary microplastics are the ones that are designed to be tiny – think cosmetic glitter or fibres from clothes. Secondary microplastics are the ones that start off big, think a plastic bag that has broken down, or a bottle in the ocean that is smashed apart by waves.

According to a study carried out by and King’s College in the U.K. and the Rozalia Project in Vermont, there is an estimated global microplastic total of between 12.5 & 125 trillion particles. That is a LOT.


Why are they a problem?

The nature of plastic means it can take hundreds or thousands of years to break down into harmless molecules. In the meantime, they litter our seas & rivers and get eaten by animals & enter the food chain. Often just the amount of plastic ingested can kill the animal, but we still don’t know whether the ingestion of tiny amounts cause us other issues, such as increasing cancers or other illnesses.

On a larger scale, plastic pollution both on land and sea causes problems by getting wrapped around animals and plants, causing horrendous injury or death.

Plastic has its use – it is an incredibly useful material for which we have very little alternative in so many uses – electronics, medical, cars, even houses, all rely on plastics and fundamentally this isn’t a problem. It’s the throwaway, single-use nature & the inability to keep it from littering the planet which is the problem here.


On average, every single one of us eats a credit card size amount of plastic every week.

In a 2019 study commissioned by the WWF, it was found that on average, we each ingest about 2000 pieces of plastic every week. That works out at about 5 gramms, or an amount about the size of a credit card.

This plastic comes from water (tap or bottled), food – especially fish & shellfish, and even in the air we breathe.


Microplastics are found in the deepest darkest parts of the ocean

Microplastics have been found in the Mariana Trench – the deepest part of the ocean, around 36,000 ft below the surface. Up to 2,000 pieces per litre have been found in the Trench’s most polluted areas. Studies show that every single part of the ocean contains microplastics – helped by the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, the colonisation of plastics by animals such as phytoplankton, which cause the particles to sink to the bottom.


35% of primary microplastics come from clothing & fabrics

Clothing is primarily made from two main types of materials. Either natural fabrics – think cotton, linen, wool, hemp or synthetic (plastic) – think acrylic, nylon or polyester, or commonly, a blend of both. Around 50% of our clothing is made of synthetic fabrics, these are plastic derivates. It’s easy to see why – stretch, warmth, colour, price are all things that are attractive to clothing manufacturers.

But, every time you wash your clothes up to 700,000 plastic fibres can come off your clothes. Unless you have a filter fitted to your washing machine, these will go down the drain, pass straight through the treatment plants and end up in the waterways. Just think, if you shake a fleece jumper, fibres will fly off – you can see them in the sunlight – these are plastics.

As a result of continuously washing our clothes, we are continuously releasing microplastics into the water supply. Up to 35% of primary microplastics (those that are designed to be tiny, rather than those broken up by bigger things) in the oceans are from clothing (the rest is from beauty products, paints & coatings (eg on boats), city dust, plastic pellets & car tyres.


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