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The microplastic mess we can’t ignore

Now that most of us have likely heard about it, even if we haven’t had the time (or the heart) to sit and watch it, it’s time to address the elephant in the room: BBC’s Drowning in Plastic. In it wildlife biologist Liz Bonnin raised a lot of issues with the plastic crisis, but the one that really stood out to me was the dreaded microplastics. If we’re ok living our lives dismissing the bigger, more blatant culprits that have a very visible impact on us and our environment (think plastic rings and fishing nets), then what are we doing to stop the flood of microplastics that for the most part go undetected?

The problem

According to National Geographic, there’s more than 9 billion tons of plastic currently polluting our planet, and we only really started mass producing the material around 1950. There seems to be a misconception that some plastics are good as they can biodegrade and so become less of an issue, when really they become the opposite – they become microplastics (less than 5mm in diameter) and are often mistaken for food by animals. It’s pretty shocking to find out that baby birds on remote islands on the other side of the world are dying from ingesting these shards of plastic, but it really hits home when you think that your own furbabies are likely hoovering them up too. These generally easy-to-ignore bits of plastic are even spreading to places virtually untouched by humans like the Arctic and even the bottom of the Mariana Trench and, thanks to global warming, melting ice sheets are expected to release trillions more microplastics into the oceans over the coming years. Forgive me for thinking then that, just like with plastic straws, banning microbeads seems to just be a way of slapping a bandage on the problem.

Why should YOU care?

Besides having a moral compass (which I assume you do if you’re reading this), microplastics are a serious threat to humans too. It’s estimated that the average seafood consumer ingests thousands of plastic particles every year. Don’t eat fish? A recent study found microplastics in 93% of bottled water from the world’s most popular brands. I use a BPA-free stainless steel reusable bottle I hear you say. Well, BPAs are only one of the chemicals in plastic found to harm humans – other endocrine disruptors are often present which, according to the World Health Organisation, are thought to affect brain development in children, fertility in men and women, heighten the risk of cancers and the list goes on. Scary stuff right? If you’ve not already watched Drowning in Plastic, did I also mention plastic is now also known to be a carrier of disease and infections?

Just take a minute to let this all sink in… now go and do something about it.

The solution

So, besides reducing our plastic use as much as possible (which you’re probably already doing if you’re here), what else can we do?

Understand where microplastics are coming from – most often they are from larger products breaking down. So while the ban on microbeads is great, here’s a list of some of the more sneaky sources and some easy alternatives.

Clothes

This is an easy one! Just look for clothes and furnishings made of natural fibres like cotton, bamboo or hemp. Not only are they usually better quality and really cosy, you won’t be inhaling those nasty plastic microfibres or flushing them into the environment every time you put a wash on. Find out more about the #WhatsInMyWash campaign here.

A woman wrapped up warm

Glitter

So this one is another bugbear of mine (I know, I know, please don’t hate me). If you think you find glitter pretty and sparkly, I’m sure those little fish do too! While this has never been a staple in my make-up bag or fancy dress drawer, it’s a pretty easy one to go without. If you’re a big festival goer though or just really love channelling your inner unicorn, eco-friendly glitter is definitely the way to go.

Wet wipes

Did you know that most wet wipes are made with plastic resins like polyester, polyethylene and polypropylene? When I discovered reusable make-up remover pads, it quickly became one of my favourite swaps. Once you’ve removed your make-up/applied your cleanser etc, you just pop them in the little cotton mesh bag you generally get with them and chuck them in with your usual wash. There are lots of beautiful patterns on Etsy (like the ones below!) but a cotton flannel works just as well if you already have one.

Penguin patterned reusable cotton rounds

Paint

Yep, it’s even in your walls. Luckily for us, you can find paints that use natural oils such as linseed oil to bind the mixture instead of plastic. Surely they must be better to breathe in too, right?

Cigarettes

Yet another reason to give up this awful habit! Turns out filters are made from cellulose acetate which is, you guessed it, plastic. Cigarette butts are also the most common item found in beach clean-ups. Just think how much healthier you’ll be and how much money you’ll save!

A cigarette end on the ground

Tyres

Turns out tyres are only about 40% rubber and the rest is actually plastic. So not only are vehicles bad for the environment in terms of emissions, they’re even throwing off thousands of tons of plastic dust every year for us to breathe in. On the flip side, expanding rubber plantations also isn’t a great option for the environment – so grab Spotify and get your daily dose of exercise for the day, or car share/take public transport for those longer trips to minimise your impact!

Tennis balls

Sadly, if you play fetch with your pooch with a tennis ball, they’re no doubt ingesting plastic too. Just like with tyres, friction causes these toys to shed microfibres made of PET all over your house and even in your dog’s mouth. Gross. Next time you’re out, opt for a good old stick (it worked for your grandparents) or buy toys made of natural materials instead.

A border collie with a dirty tennis ball in its mouth

Phew. Well hey, I did warn you it wouldn’t be easy reading! Ignorance is bliss and all that. The main takeaway I really want to put out there is that individuals can make a huge impact by minimising the amount of plastic they use, but you can’t beat yourself up for not being perfect. It’s a very big problem for any one person to tackle, and sadly society isn’t quite there yet when it comes to making living sustainably the easy option. Remember though, it’s better to make sustainable changes than to get overwhelmed and to end up doing nothing! You may not be able to save the world, but at the end of the day you’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem. And I know which I’d rather be.

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