How to avoid microplastics: Strategies for consumers and corporations

How to avoid microplastics: Strategies for consumers and corporations

By Adnan Kayyali

In today’s world, where microplastics have become a pervasive concern due to their harmful effects on the environment and potential risks to human health, it is crucial to understand how to avoid microplastics. In this article, we explore microplastics and how they end up in the environment and provide practical tips for consumers and corporations to reduce microplastic exposure.

Microplastics in Industry - Report

Microplastics in Industry: Identifying Risks & Opportunities for Action

Microplastics have prompted discussions across industries. Tailored regulations are essential for promoting sustainable innovation and environmental safety. This Intelligence Brief provides insights on challenges, strategies, regulations, and microplastic removal methods.

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that are less than 5 millimeters in size. They exist in various environments, including water, soil, food, and even the air we breathe. Two sources give rise to microplastics: primary microplastics, intentionally manufactured for specific purposes, and secondary microplastics, which result from the breakdown of larger plastic items. Their widespread presence and ability to accumulate in ecosystems make these microscopic plastic pieces a cause for concern regarding environmental pollution and potential health risks.

What are the different types of microplastics and their sources?

There are two main categories of microplastics: primary and secondary.

different types of microplastics

Primary microplastics are specifically manufactured for commercial use and can take the form of pellets, nurdles, industrial plastic powders, microfibers, and microbeads. These materials are commonly found in cosmetics, toothpaste, pharmaceutical drugs, and other products.

Examples of primary microplastics include:

  • Plastic pellets
  • Glitter made from plastic
  • Powdered plastic
  • Microbeads
  • Microfibers

Secondary microplastics, on the other hand, are the result of larger plastic items breaking down into smaller pieces over time. This breakdown occurs under various chemical, physical, and biological conditions.

Examples of secondary microplastics include:

  • Plastic packaging
  • Particles from tire wear
  • Synthetic textile fibers
  • Fishing gear, such as nets, lines, and traps
  • Tea bags

By classifying microplastics into primary and secondary categories, companies can better devise strategies to circumvent them.

How do microplastics end up in the environment?

Microplastics end up in the environment through a variety of sources, including the breakdown of larger plastics, synthetic clothing, and personal care products. They can also enter the environment through industrial processes and waste disposal. Microplastics can be found in food, soil, water, and even the air we breathe.

Reports reveal the annual consumption of microplastics ranges between 39,000 to 52,000 particles. However, when considering inhalation, this range significantly expands to 74,000 to 121,000 particles.

Findings also highlight that individuals relying on bottled water as their primary source may ingest an additional 90,000 microplastics annually, whereas those who consume tap water ingest a comparatively lower amount of 4,000 particles each year. These statistics underscore the urgency of comprehending and addressing the concerning levels of microplastic exposure for human health.

Why should we avoid microplastics?

Although the exact impact of microplastics on human health remains uncertain, emerging evidence suggests that they can pose risks by damaging human cells and accumulating in tissues. 

Microplastics can enter the body through ingestion and inhalation. Laboratory studies have demonstrated that microplastics can induce harmful effects on human cells, such as allergic reactions and cell death.

Our report on microplastics in industry emphasizes the detrimental impact of microplastics on marine life, which may subsequently affect humans through both direct and indirect pathways.

The effects observed on marine life are as follows:

  • Oxidative Stress
  • Inflammation
  • Metabolic Disorders
  • Behavioral Changes
  • Structural Damage (Organs)
  • Biochemical Damage
  • Reduced Fertility
  • Developmental Delays

How to avoid microplastics: 6 strategies for corporations

Companies are taking various steps to avoid microplastics on an industry level in response to more stringent regulations and growing consumer demand for more sustainable options. Here are a few strategies to lower or avoid microplastics in their production lines and processes.

1- Product Redesigning

Companies are redesigning their products to reduce the amount of plastic used, extend product life, and allow repair and reuse. This approach helps reduce the amount of plastic waste generated and ensures that products last longer. Ethique, since 2012, has replaced its liquid products to solid (bars) packaged in cardboard boxes. The company aims to prevent up to 1 million bottles, jars, and tubes from being made by 2025.

2- Recyclability and Recovery Support

Recyclability and recovery support are sustainable long-term solutions that help with plastic waste management. Companies are working to ensure that their products are recyclable and that they can be recovered and reused. Ralph Lauren is working towards making all packaging materials recyclable, reusable, or sustainably sourced and achieving 100% sustainably sourced key materials by 2025. 

3- Ban Certain Types of Single-Use Plastics

Companies are also banning certain types of single-use plastics, such as straws, utensils, and plastic shopping bags. This approach helps reduce the amount of plastic waste generated and ensures that these items are not released into the environment. American Airlines is banning plastic straws and stirrers on its flights and offering reusable bags to pack up to-go orders.

4- Improve Wastewater Treatment Technologies

Working to improve wastewater treatment technologies can help prevent microplastics from entering the environment. This approach helps ensure that microplastics are removed from wastewater before it is released into the environment. Samsung is launching their Less Microfiber Cycle and Filter, a washing machine filter that reduces microplastic emissions by preventing them from escaping into the ocean at the end of wash cycles.

5- Develop New Bioplastics and Compostable Products

Companies are actively developing new bioplastics and compostable products as alternatives to traditional plastics. These products aim to break down more quickly and easily than traditional plastics, thereby reducing the amount of plastic waste generated. Danimer Scientific and TotalEnergies Corbion announced in April of this year that they have developed a new compostable coffee pod biopolymer that is in compliance with proposed EU packaging regulations.

6- Establish and Comply with a Maximum Microplastic Releasing Limit for Each Source

A maximum microplastic release limit is also being established by businesses and adhered to for each source, including tires, cosmetics, cigarettes, textiles, packaging, and more. This approach helps ensure that companies are not releasing excessive amounts of microplastics into the environment. In November of 2022, the EU announced a legislative proposal setting a to limit the microplastic emissions from tires in the coming years.

11 ways to avoid microplastics: Strategies for consumers

Though more research is needed to fully understand the health implications, taking proactive steps to reduce microplastic exposure is a responsible choice. Here are 11 quick strategies consumers can take:

  1. Drink filtered tap water: Tap water contains fewer microplastics than bottled water. Switch to a reusable glass or metal bottle and fill with filtered tap water.
  2. Avoid single-use plastics: Single-use plastics, such as straws, utensils, and bags, are a major source of microplastics. Instead, opt for reusable alternatives.
  3. Use plastic-free cosmetics: Read labels and avoid items that contribute to microplastic runoff. While microbeads have been banned since 2015, microplastics are still in a lot of cosmetics, toothpaste, and skincare products.
  4. Store your food in metal or glass containers: Avoid storing your food in plastic containers, which can leach microplastics into food. 
  5. Don’t microwave food in plastic: When heated, plastic can release microplastics into food. Instead, use glass or ceramic containers.
  6. Reduce shellfish consumption: Bottom-feeding shellfish can contain high levels of microplastics, so reducing your consumption can help reduce your exposure.
  7. Washing machine filters: You can install a microfiber filter in your washing machine. Washing synthetic clothing releases microplastics into the water system. By using a washing machine filter, you can capture these microplastics and prevent them from entering the environment.
  8. Buy organic clothes: Synthetic clothing, such as polyester, is a huge contributor to microplastics. When possible, choose eco-friendly, sustainable clothing made from organic materials, such as cotton, silk, wool, hemp, and other natural fibers.
  9. Regularly dust and vacuum: Microplastics can accumulate in dust, so regularly dusting and vacuuming can help reduce your exposure.
  10. Cut out takeaway cups: Disposable coffee cups are often lined with plastic, which can release microplastics when heated. Instead, bring your own reusable cup and ask the barista to fill it for you.
  11. Choose natural fibers: When buying carpets, rugs, and other household items, choose natural fibers such as wool, cotton, and jute instead of synthetic materials.

The key takeaway:

In conclusion, the fight against microplastics is a shared responsibility. It requires a collective shift in our consumption patterns, production processes, and waste management practices. By taking these steps, we can contribute to a healthier, more sustainable world for ourselves and future generations.

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