What Are Microplastics and Why Are They Bad?

Understand what microplastics are and why they’re bad so you can protect against them.

By: Rachel Carollo

You’re probably hearing more and more about microplastics these days, coupled with a growing urgency to address them. But what are microplastics? Microplastics are tiny fragments of plastic that can be found from the depths of the oceans to the air we breathe. Microplastics are everywhere, and that’s why they’re a problem. These microscopic bits of plastic not only pollute the land, the oceans, and the wildlife within these ecosystems, but they end up inside our bodies as well. In this article, we’re going to explore where microplastics come from, why they’re harmful to humans and the environment, and how to reduce microplastic contamination in your everyday life.

What are microplastics?

Scientists first discovered tiny pieces of plastic in the oceans in the 1970s, but the term “microplastic” wasn’t coined until 2004. Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that measure less than five millimeters in size and come in various forms. They can be categorized into two main types: primary microplastics and secondary microplastics. Primary microplastics are intentionally manufactured at a small size, such as microbeads in personal care products, and are designed for specific purposes like exfoliation or abrasive cleaning. 

Secondary microplastics, on the other hand, result from the breakdown of larger plastic items over time due to weathering, UV radiation, and physical wear and tear. These larger plastic items, such as bottles, bags, and packaging materials, gradually fragment into smaller and smaller pieces over time, ultimately becoming microplastics. From there, they can break down even further into dust that’s impossible to remove from the environment. The ultra-tiny particles that make up this dust are called nanoplastics.  

Due to their tiny size, microplastics can easily be distributed through the environment through processes like wind dispersal, soil erosion and runoff, wastewater treatment, and being eaten by fish and other creatures in the ecosystem. 

Where do microplastics come from?

Humanity has created more than 8.4 billion tons of plastic in the last 60 years for various applications, and most of it hasn’t been recycled. Once these plastics have served their purpose and are discarded, they often end up in landfills or the ocean, where they degrade into smaller particles. Here are just a few sources of microplastics: 

  • Microbeads in personal care products
  • Nurdles (pre-production plastic pellets)
  • Microfibers from synthetic textiles
  • Industrial abrasives containing microplastics
  • Plastic debris from larger items
  • Tire wear and tire dust
  • Anti-fouling paints on boats and ships
  • Plastic litter and discarded items
  • Degradation of plastic waste in landfills
  • Production of plastic dust through abrasion
  • Weathering and UV degradation of plastics
  • Breakdown of plastic packaging materials
  • Disintegration of plastic bottles and containers
  • Erosion of plastic-based outdoor equipment
  • Release of microplastics during plastic manufacturing processes

Microplastics in drinking water

From plastic bags to single-use bottles to food containers, plastic enters our water sources every day through littering, irresponsible waste management, wastewater runoff, and more. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than eight million tons of discarded plastic makes its way into our waterways every year. A lot of plastic floats, meaning that as it breaks down over time, it’s going directly into our water. 

Our municipalities are designed to disinfect your water before it reaches your home, mainly tackling contaminants like microorganisms (E. coli and giardia), inorganic chemicals (asbestos and arsenic), and other impurities that can cause serious health issues. Because microplastics are so small, the city is able to remove some of the unwanted contaminant, leaving it in our drinking water supply.

Why are microplastics bad?

Microplastics are a major concern because of their widespread presence in the environment. They can be found in oceans, rivers, lakes, soil, and even the air we breathe. Due to their small size, they can easily enter and accumulate in various ecosystems, posing potential threats to marine life, wildlife, and human health. As they persist in the environment for extended periods, microplastics have raised serious environmental and ecological concerns, making them a critical issue in the context of plastic pollution with health implications for wildlife and humans as well.

How much plastic do we actually consume?

In 2019, a study was conducted by the University of Newcastle, Australia to figure out how much microplastics humans actually consume. Their findings showed that through ingestion, people are consuming about five grams of plastic every week, which is the equivalent weight to a plastic credit card. This shocking amount may even be an underestimate though, as this study can’t track the nanoplastics that we breathe in and consume. While plastic has been around since the early 1900s, it’s not safe for our bodies to ingest this foreign, man-made material, even in small amounts. 

Health effects of microplastics

The health effects of microplastics have emerged as an area of growing concern. While the full extent of their impact on human health is still under investigation, several potential health risks have been identified. First, ingested microplastics can accumulate in the gastrointestinal tract and potentially lead to physical irritation, inflammation, or damage to the intestinal lining. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that these tiny particles may act as carriers for harmful chemical pollutants, such as heavy metals and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. When microplastics are ingested, these contaminants can leach into the body, potentially causing systemic health issues.

The inhalation of airborne microplastics is another concern, particularly in urban areas where they may be present in dust and air pollution. Once inhaled, these particles could potentially reach the respiratory system and lead to respiratory problems. Although research is ongoing, it is clear that the pervasive presence of microplastics in the environment warrants further investigation into their potential health effects.

Environmental effects of microplastics

Microplastics have become a global pollutant of concern for both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. In aquatic environments, microplastics are often mistaken for food by a wide range of organisms, from zooplankton to larger marine animals. When ingested, microplastics can block digestive tracts, leading to malnutrition, reduced growth, and even death. Moreover, plastics' ability to absorb and transport toxic chemicals means that these pollutants can accumulate in the tissues of marine organisms, potentially entering the food chain and ultimately posing risks to human health.

On land, microplastics can be carried by wind and water, spreading across landscapes and accumulating in soil. In agricultural settings, microplastics in soil may affect crop growth and the health of soil organisms. Furthermore, microplastics in the atmosphere can settle onto land, contributing to pollution in urban and remote areas alike. The long-term ecological consequences of microplastic pollution are still being studied, but there is growing evidence that they disrupt ecosystems, alter nutrient cycling, and influence the health of both terrestrial and aquatic organisms.

How to reduce microplastic contamination

Reducing microplastic contamination is a collective responsibility, and individuals can play a significant role in minimizing their contribution to this global issue. The good news? You can reduce microplastic contamination in a number of ways, from your shopping habits and public life to simple things you can do at home. 

Plastic production is fueled by consumerism, so some of the most powerful strategies you can employ to reduce microplastic contamination start with your individual habits. A great place to begin is with shopping. Synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon are incredibly versatile — making up about 60% of our clothing — but they also shed microplastics each time you wash them. Instead of splurging on a clothing haul of new polyester pieces, opt for natural fibers like wool, silk, or hemp. You can also reduce your microplastic contamination by avoiding single-use plastics and cosmetics that feature micro-exfoliating beads. Instead, opt for reusable shopping bags and water bottles, and plastic-free cosmetics. 

Out in the world, opt for public or alternative transportation, as car tires break down with each use and spread their microplastics far and wide. Support environmental policies and organizations that are taking action against microplastics and rally your friends and loved ones to join the cause. 

At home, you can mitigate the amount of microplastics released by your washer and dryer by using quality filters, washing your clothes less often, using less water, and buying less new clothing. New items shed more microfibers than items you’ve already worn and washed a few times. Another step you can take is to dust and vacuum regularly and use quality home air filters, as it’s been reported that 39% of in-home dust consists of microplastics. Avoid microwaving your food in plastic containers as these take-out boxes leach plastics into your food when they’re heated. 

Finally, you can reduce the microplastic contamination in your drinking water by using an in-home filter like Aquasana’s Clean Water Machine or Claryum® 3-Stage Max Flow, both of which are certified to filter microplastics. The Claryum® 3-Stage Max Flow can replace 6,000 single-use plastic water bottles per filter and removes 15 times more contaminants than pitcher filters. With no additional chemicals added during filtration, beneficial minerals like calcium and magnesium remain intact, leaving you with delicious, pure drinking water that you can drink at home or bottle on-the-go. Simply plug in the system and let it run once to start enjoying filtered water with the tap of a button.


Claryum® 3-Stage Max Flow

Remove up to 99% of 78 contaminants, plus sediment. Now with 44% faster water flow for ultimate hydration.