Nowadays, it's hard not to know about the effects plastics have on our environment. Step outside, and you might see a sign advocating for more recycling and less plastic pollution, or a forest where empty cartons and plastic shopping bags line the roots of the trees. Even in the comfort of your own home, the influence of plastics still reaches you, through social media and the news. However, even with all this influx of information, the effects of microplastics themselves often go unnoticed in mainstream society.
Microplastics have a large impact on society, despite being so small. They are found throughout the world in places that are artificial and natural. There are two types of microplastics and they are Primary Microplastics and Secondary Microplastics.
Primary microplastics are synthetic polymers that are manufactured to be very small. These microplastics have a variety of uses. The most common primary microplastics are plastic resin pellets. Also called nurdles, these are polymers that are purposefully manufactured to have a solid structure of less than 5 mm in diameter. They are then melted into a liquid, which can be poured into a mold to create a plastic of any shape and size.
Synthetic polymers are also manufactured at sizes less than 5 mm for use in cleaning products. These microplastics are called microbeads. Many cosmetic and personal care products such as liquid soaps and facial scrubs contain these microplastics. Other cleaners that include these microbeads are industrial boat cleaners, and paint removers.
Microbeads are used for many other things as well. One use for microbeads is in airblasting. In order to clean large machinery, factories will blast high pressured air mixed with microbeads at the machines to remove toxic metals and rust. The small black pellets found on artificial turf fields are microbeads, and microbeads are often used as vectors in biology labs.
Secondary microplastics are the fragments of synthetic polymers that have been degraded. There are many ways for plastics to be degraded and to be transformed into microplastics. More information on this can be found under the Production page.
One major source of secondary microplastics comes from automobile tires. As many people know, tires often need to get replaced, because the grips have worn away. As tires are made of synthetic rubber, the small bits that come off of the tires are microplastics.
Another major contributor to the secondary microplastic population is the laundering of clothing. Many articles of clothing are made out of a synthetic polymer called, polyester. When polyester is laundered, microfibers are released into the air and water supply. These microplastics are microscopic, making invisible to the naked eye, and therefore gain little attention from the global population.
Fishing materials, equipment, and gear are large sources of microplastics as well. Fishing wire and nets are often lost in the ocean, and degrade into very small particles. Similarly microplastics can be found in the form of microfibers in bottled water and tap water. A study done by The State University of New York at Fredonia found that on average bottled water contained 325 particle/liter.
Other microplastics are produced from plastic that is not recycled. As only 9% of plastic is recycled, most plastic ends up discarded into the environment, where it is degraded into microplastic sized pieces over time. These microplastics make up a large percent of microplastics found throughout the environment.