Microplastics are defined as plastic particles that measure 5mm or less in diameter and are often invisible to the naked eye. Microplastics have spread all over the globe, from the upper atmosphere to the deepest sea trenches. Microplastics constitute a portion of airborne particulate matter (e.g., nanoparticles) and are generated primarily from vehicle tires and road markings. Once microplastics have degraded into nanoparticles, they can easily enter the human body, typically though inhalation. Norway has issued recommendations on how effectively reduce the amount of microplastics that are released into the streets and the sea. These recommendations include: minimize the use of personal vehicles, improve street cleaning procedures, minimize use of studded tires, eco-driving, self-driving vehicles and improve snow-clearing procedures.
Insects and worms can also carry microplastics to subterranean levels as they pick up the particles in one place and release them as excrement elsewhere.
So-called microbeads are a popular additive in a number of cosmetics. Microbeads are added to products to give them a certain texture or efficacy. They manufactured particles that are less than 1 mm in diameter, and when they are released into the environment they become microplastics. Particles this small act as a kind of sponge for toxic substances, i.e., they attract other pollutants from the environment meaning that microbeads/microplastics become an even more harmful agent.
The science community in the UK has demanded a stop to the production of glitter, which is made from plastic, pointing out that glitter particles have the same harmful impact on the environment that microplastics do.
In 2018 the Environmental Agency of Iceland carried out two studies to access the state of plastics pollution in the ocean off the coast of Iceland, one in concert with Suðurnes Research Center of the University of Iceland, which investigated microplastics in mussels in several areas around Iceland. The other study, contracted with the Northeast Iceland Nature Research Center, invested plastic found in the stomachs of fulmar seabirds. The results proved that microplastics are present in coastal mussels in all areas tested, primarily plastic threads (with an average length of 1.1 mm) and plastic was found in about 70% of fulmars, considerably more in the stomachs of females. Microplastics and plastic pollution are taking a serious toll on animal life in Iceland.
Studies on the origins of microplastics in Iceland are still in the preliminary stages, but according to a 2019 report prepared by Iceland’s Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources, the proliferation of microplastics in Iceland is estimated to be 450-1000 tons per year. Tires contain plastics that break down into microplastics, and, as the report concludes, tires are by far the largest source of microplastics in Iceland, releasing an estimated 371-586 tons into the environment every year, 164-255 tons of which are washed out to sea. The proportion of microplastics from tires is comparable to levels in neighboring countries or about 75%. Plastic particles from road surface markings are the second-largest source with 6-43 tons. The third-largest source of microplastics in the environment is house painting with 15-36 tons, the fourth is plastic particles from laundry with 8-32 tons, and the fifth-largest source is ship painting with 3-10 tons.
These figures reflect direct release into the environment and do not account for microplastics washed out to sea, but in some of the categories above it is considered likely that a large portion ends up washed out to sea, as can be seen in the figures for tires. It is also considered likely that half the microplastics from house painting are washed out to sea and that all microplastics produced through laundry and cosmetics are washed out to sea via wastewater treatment.
It’s also important to realize that many home cleaning products should not be placed in the toilet, like wet wipes, which are made from plastic. Remember that the only things that belong in the toilet are human waste and toilet paper.
The most effective thing we can do in the battle against microplastics is to minimize our use of personal vehicles, which significantly reduces particulate matter in our air.