You will find it everywhere: microplastic. It is an environmental hazard, disastrous for humans and animals and needs to be addressed. Everyone is correct. But what exactly is it? Where do these small particles of plastic come from? How dangerous are they and how can you avoid them? We are going to take a closer look…
Micro plastics are small particles of plastic (they are synthetic polymers). They are smaller than 5 mm and as soon as they are smaller than 1 mm, they are also referred to as microbeads or microbeads . Microbeads smaller than 0.05 mm are called nanoplastics . The small particles are hardly degradable or soluble in water and / or the environment. Once they end up in the water, in the air or in the ground, there will always be some of it left behind. And it is inevitable that these, sometimes microscopic, particles of plastic end up in our living environment.
Synthetic polymers are widely used in everyday products. Among other things in plastic packaging, in synthetic clothing, in utensils, in paint, in (car) tires, in cosmetics and other products that serve for physical care and / or cleaning products. These products can show wear, causing synthetic polymers to disperse in small particles. Also, by simply using some of these products, you ensure that micro plastics end up in the environment.
The pollution from micro plastics occurs in different ways. For example, by using exfoliating creams, toothpaste or abrasives. The very small pieces of plastic have been added to this by manufacturers so that the products get their properties (the abrasive effect). The micro plastics end up in the water through use.
Micro plastics are also created by the breakdown of plastic litter. Wind, sun and rain cause the plastic to become brittle and fall apart into smaller and smaller particles. When (car) tires and synthetic clothing are worn, the microscopic particles end up in the air. Just by everyday use.
Although the picture is far from complete, we can already conclude that it is undesirable that synthetic polymers are freely present in our environment. If you look at the amount of “visible” plastic that is in the sea, for example, and the damage it does, you don’t need to be a scientist to see the danger. You can figure out how much more “invisible” plastic is floating around and how much more damage this can cause. And not only for the animals and plants in the sea. In this way (for example via fish, shellfish, algae and seaweeds), the small pieces of synthetic polymers also enter the food chain. When we eat this food, the mini pieces of plastic can get into the body and damage organs. The even smaller particles, the so-called nanoplastics, could even manifest themselves in body cells. With all its consequences.
Plastic has been used extensively since the 1960s. And since then synthetic polymers have also entered our environment. Since the last few years, attention has only really been paid to the danger that micro plastic entails. There are also increasingly better measuring methods and more and more research is being done. There is also increasing attention at political level for these risks. Investigations are underway and various initiatives and recommendations to curb micro plastics. Nevertheless, it is impossible to name all dangers. Simply because it is insufficiently known what damage it will have in the long term.
At this point, concern for your immediate health may be premature. Consciousness, on the other hand, is a good development. If we now choose to use products that do not contain synthetic polymers, the pollution and spread will in any case become much less. By consciously choosing products that do not contain micro plastic, you can therefore help create a better environment. For example, choose organic cosmetics or products with a Zero Plastic Inside logo.
So you will find the micropolymers in everyday products, but since they are virtually invisible, you will have to look at the labels to find out if there are micro plastics in the product. You can recognize these by specific indications. The presence of microplastics must be stated by law. As soon as the abbreviations PE (polyethylene), PP (polypropylene), PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) or Nylon appear on the label, you can assume that there is microplastic in the product. These names are used worldwide to identify micro plastics in cosmetics. The INCI (International Naming for Cosmetic Ingredients) has the task of naming all ingredients in cosmetic products.
There are two types of microplastic. Polymer particles deliberately added to products fall under the category of primary micro plastics. You can think of cosmetics, cleaning products, paint, toothpaste or other products for physical care. The secondary micro plastics come from larger types of plastics. For example, wear and tear coming from synthetic clothing, (car) tires or plastic packaging. This category also makes the greatest contribution to the spread of micro plastics. Which is actually very unfortunate, because this is a lot less manageable.
Because there are so many different types of plastic, and the plastic has so many applications, it is impossible to avoid the products. However, there are a number of choices you can make to reduce your contribution to the spread of micro plastics.
Organic and natural cosmetics are free from synthetic ingredients. Chemical ingredients are often added in regular cosmetics. Among other things to extend the shelf life of the product. Micro plastics can also be added to get a scrub effect, for example. The Plastic Soup Foundation has created an App with which you can check which cosmetics products and articles for physical care contain micro plastics.
Although all micro plastics are polymers, not all polymers are micro plastics. There are misunderstandings about this and this is an important distinction. Because some types of plastic are safer than others. To clarify this, a recycle code has been applied to plastic utensils. A triangle with a number in it. The codes with the numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 are safe. It is better to avoid plastics without a code.
Synthetic clothes (nylon, fleece, polyester and acrylic) lose micro plastics when washed in the washing machine and so pollute the water. Small particles can also get into the air through wear. If you consciously choose clothing that is made of a natural material (for example cotton, wool, bamboo fiber) then you also contribute in this way to a “green” future.
If you want to make sure that the products you use do not contain micro plastics, choose materials other than plastic. At least with regard to packaging, bags and other consumer items. And if you cannot choose a different material, you pay attention to the recyclability of the plastic, among other things. The cosmetics industry makes it even easier for you. There are various quality marks (including European Ecolabel , NaTrue , BDIH , Cosmebio Bio & Eco ) that guarantee that there are no plastic in the products.
To get an idea of the problems surrounding micro plastics, it is useful to have a number of figures and facts in a row.
● There are 51 trillion micro plastic particles in the seas.
● Secondary micro plastics are responsible for 69 to 81% of the distribution.
● Primary micro plastics cause between 15 and 31% of the pollution.
● About 250 million tons of plastic are produced worldwide. 40% of this is packaging material.
● The number of scientific studies on micro plastics has increased 8-fold in the past 10 years.
● To reduce microbeads in cosmetics, the cosmetics and care industry has replaced plastic scrub granules in many products.
● There are toxic substances in the sea that attach to the micro plastics that pollute the sea. This concerns the so-called POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants), the biologically non-degradable toxic substances. This not only poses a danger to micro- and nanoplastics, but also these substances.
● Mussels filter all kinds of chemicals from the water. A number of studies are underway to see whether these triangular mussels can be used successfully to filter micro- and nanoplastics from water.
● Tap water contains less plastics than micro water from plastic bottles. In particular, the reuse of plastic bottles that are actually for single use, entails a risk of micro plastic.
● In a culture glass ( in vitro ), micro plastics appear to kill human immune cells. Further and further studies must show what effects micro plastics have in the human body.
You can of course also close your eyes to the possible dangers of micro plastics in the environment. But that would be unwise, to say the least. Because even though we do not yet see any danger to public health, please realize that we can still avoid this now. At least we have to assume that.
Based on current studies done in laboratories, culture studies show that nylon nanoplastics have a destructive effect on lung tissue. Animal experiments have also shown that nanoplastics penetrate to the placenta, intestinal cells and even enter the bloodstream. Those are not happy results, of course.
Fortunately, governments have also been alerted to these results and there has been an awareness within the European Union. There is a strong plea to ban primary micro plastics (ie those that have been added deliberately). In countries such as Canada, Sweden and a number of US states, microbeads in care products are banned or restricted.
The industry is also aware of the risks and is taking measures. Food manufacturers are increasingly using safe plastic material. Cosmetic manufacturers that are members of the European Cosmetics Association jointly phase out the use of microbeads. And we can expect that slowly but surely, manufacturers of other micro-plastics products will follow suit.
Everything stands and falls with the use of plastics. European legislators and regulators therefore want to severely restrict the use of plastic. In 2015, measures were taken against the use of plastic bags. An EU plastics strategy has also been agreed in which possible solutions for the near future but also for the long term are determined. Among other things, a mandatory use of 100% recycled or recyclable plastic in 2030. Calls have also been made for a total ban on adding microbeads to cosmetics, cleaning products and personal care products. There will also be a ban on some single-use plastics within the foreseeable future. For example, straws, plastic balloon holders, disposable cutlery and disposable plates.
For the time being, we can say that we all have to work hard to avert the danger of micro- and nanoplastics, microbeads and other pollution from plastic. Perhaps by making more use of glass or aluminum as packaging material. However, these materials are currently more expensive to recycle, heavier to transport and / or do not (yet) have all the advantages that plastic packaging has. Given the problems surrounding the plastic story, manufacturers will increasingly put the possibilities of alternative packaging material on the agenda.
With all regulations, initiatives, searches for natural materials that can replace plastics and of course consumer awareness, we must be able to assume that we are on the right track. There is hope, as long as we all contribute!