Among other things, car tyres, synthetic clothing and even tea bags contain microplastics.
The problem with any kind of plastic is that it eventually becomes tiny but never disappears completely. In the oceans even the largest and most stubborn pieces of plastic are broken down by the waves and sunlight until they are smaller than five millimetres in diameter – about the size of an ant. At that time, they are classified as’ secondary microplastics’. This type of plastic, which was once a drinking bottle, equipment for fishing, disposable cutlery and so on, is even more common than’ primary microplastics’, which were small from the outset, such as the micrograins contained in toothpaste.
Micrograins are the best known cause of contamination by small pieces of plastic. But that also means that there are other, less obvious sources for microplastics in everyday life. We call them ‘hidden microplastics’, and they fall within this category:
Car tyres are made of rubber and approximately 60% plastic (styrene-butadiene). The friction, pressure and heat caused by driving, the tyres wear out so hard that plastic dust is formed. Blowing that dust into the atmosphere can contribute to poor air quality. This is seen by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a cause of premature death.
The dust can also flush to rivers and oceans via sewers. It will probably be eaten there by filtering animals such as mussels, which will end up in our food chain. The industry could go back to natural rubber rubber latex, but that would put too much pressure on the environment: growing rubber plantations are already a catastrophe for endangered species in South East Asia.
Outdoor sports equipment, leggings, fleeces and sweaters made of acrylic, polyester, polyamide, spandex or nylon release up to 700,000 microfibres per wash. And once they end up in the water, it is difficult to filter them out again. More still, research has shown that in many countries the tap water now contains microfibres.
In the USA, for example, 94% of the steel microfibres contained. They end up in the air because of friction or as dust from the dryer and can then be inhaled. It is also suspected that the lungs can absorb the toxins in the fibres. In nature, the microfibres are eaten by fish and other animals, which prefer them to’ real’ food. A solution can be to provide all washing machines with filters and to choose natural fibres.
The fluffy exterior is made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate), the same material that plastic milk bottles are made of. Just like car tires, the plastic is worn away by use, making it dusty.
Pods or tablets for dishwasher or washing machine
All kinds of detergents and abrasive disinfectants contain microplastics such as polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP), the same granules banned in cosmetics in France and the United Kingdom. It would be better to use a natural material, such as ground coconut shells.
The filters are made from cellulose acetate, a type of plastic that is not biodegradable. They can emit microfibres and, when used, they also emit large quantities of toxins, including nicotine. Cigarette butts are a major polluter in the oceans and are most frequently collected when cleaning up beaches.
Glitter is a favourite part of craft lessons, but not innocent. It is made from PET or polyvinyl chloride film (PVC) and is very difficult to break down. Instead, you could use glitter of biodegradable film made from eucalyptus.
All these products are usually made from polyester, polyethylene and polypropylene – or from a mixture of these plastics and natural fibres. They cause so-called “fat mountains” that block sewers and are not broken down. They are also a source of plastic microfibres. A traditional flannel version made entirely of cotton is an environmentally friendly solution.
Many tea bags are not fully biodegradable because they include a polypropylene “skeleton”. This skeleton then breaks down into tiny particles when the paper is decomposed in the compost heap or soil. Ask the producer if your tea is free of plastic, or switch to loose tea.
Plastic dust from thermoplastic paint used for road markings, ships and houses is spread over the ocean surface. Fortunately not all paint contains plastic: go looking for paint with linseed oil or latex as a binding agent.
Paper cups are coated on the inside with a layer of polyethylene. Just like tea bags, the paper is completely broken down, but the plastic falls apart when the cup is thrown away or composted. Such mixed materials must therefore be treated by a specialised recycling company. You can also always bring a refillable bag.
According to the Plastic Soup Foundation, 311 million tonnes of new plastic are currently being produced each year. Approximately half is for single use and is thrown away immediately. Most plastics are not biodegradable. We neet to combat plastic pollution in the ocean becouse is growing at an appalling rate. Plastic production is expected to increase enormously in the coming years as the world population and economy continues to grow.
Watch this this documentary shot on more than 20 locations. Explorers Craig Leeson and Tanya Streeter and a team of international scientists reveal the causes and consequences of plastic pollution and share solutions.