What Are Microplastics?
Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic less than 5mm in size. They are found in the world's oceans, as well as in all five of the Great Lakes. Concentrations of plastic pollution in Lake Erie are some of the highest in the world.
According to recent research by M. Eriksen, there are more than five trillion plastic pieces weighing over 226,000 tonnes in the world's oceans. Ocean currents cause this plastic garbage to accumulate in five large gyres where the plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. The Great Lakes also have their share of plastic garbage, and much of it is barely visible to the naked eye.
Microplastics end up in the Great Lakes in several ways:
- Larger plastic garbage never really goes away. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces when exposed to sunlight, wave, and wind action.
- Some consumer products, such as exfoliating body scrubs and toothpaste, contain tiny plastic "microbeads" that go down the drain when we use them. Not all of these microbeads are captured at wastewater treatment plants, so they make their way into the Great Lakes.
- Much of our clothing, such as fleece and nylon, is made from synthetic (plastic) textile. Every time we wash our synthetic clothing, some of the plastic fibres end up in the Great Lakes.
Microplastics don't float forever. They may get covered in micro-organisms and sink to the lake bottom, or end up in beaches or plant matter where they are impossible to clean up. Or they may get eaten by birds, fish, invertebrates such as mussels, and other aquatic life. Microplastics:
- can create internal blockages in wildlife, leading to dehydration and starvation.
- concentrate chemical pollutants such as PCBs from the surrounding water. These toxic chemicals are passed on to birds, fish and other organisms that eat the plastic, where they are concentrated even further and can affect the organism's hormone systems.
Keep Plastic Out of the Waste Stream
The best way to get microplastics out of the Great Lakes is to make sure they never get there in the first place. Reduce your use of plastic products by:
- Avoiding single use disposable products like plastic shopping bags, cups and dishes, and takeout containers.
- Avoiding purchasing water in plastic bottles. Using tap water is safe, economical, and non-polluting.
- Doing a plastics inventory of your shopping cart before heading to the register. Can you substitute plastic-free and packaging-reduced alternatives for some of your purchases?
Avoid Products Containing Microbeads
Tiny plastic microbeads, used as scrubbing agents or exfoliants in personal care products, are often brightly coloured and can be seen in suspension in the body washes or facials scrubs containing them. These are not all captured at waste treatment facilities, so they make their way to the Great Lakes.
Read lablels and choose products that do not contain microbeads or the plastics from which they are made -- polyethylene and polypropylene.
Choose exfoliants or scrubbing agents made from sea salt, oatmeal, crushed apricot pits or walnut shells instead.
Prefer Natural Textiles to Synthetic
Many of the fabrics we use to make clothing and other consumer products are actually plastic products. Nylon, vinyl, orlon, lycra, or spandex, and synthetic polymers such as polar fleece, are all manufactured from refined and blended petroleum products that are spun into fibres. When laundered, the plastic fibres are released into the washing water. These are not all captured at wastewater treatment facilities, so they make their way to the Great Lakes. Choose natural fibres if possible, such as cotton, flax, linen, hemp, wool, silk, cashmere, mohair, angora, alpaca, jute, sisal, coir, ramie, or bamboo.
EcoSuperior's fact sheet on Microplastics is available here.
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