Tracing The Source: Where Do Microplastics Come from?

Microplastics come from the degradation of larger plastics exposed to environmental wear and from direct manufacture for items such as cosmetics and industrial pellets.

The escalating concern surrounding global microplastic pollution levels proves that public awareness of microplastic is rising. By definition, microplastics are those tiny particles with sizes less than five millimeters. Considering the sizes, they become a serious issue, knowing they can penetrate the soil, groundwater, and the ocean. But, where do microplastics come from in general?

Microplastics are generally the result of larger plastic debris fragmentation due to weathering. Some industries also produce these kinds of plastic particles for various purposes.

where do microplastics come from
Plastic Garbage on a Beach Coming from the Sea

Microbeads in personal care products, for example, are made of microplastics to scrub agents in body wash or even toothpaste to add gritty textures. Unfortunately, they have attracted controversy due to their negative impact on the environment, especially on waterway systems.

In response to these detrimental impacts on our ecosystem, our experts invite you t explore where do microplastics come from. It is vital so that we can participate in reducing pollution caused by microplastics and finding sustainable solutions to the microplastic problem.

Key Takeaways

  • Microplastics come from larger plastic breakdown and direct manufacturing.
  • Key sources include personal care microbeads, industrial pellets, and synthetic textile fibers.
  • They degrade into microplastics through environmental factors like UV light and mechanical wear.
  • These particles threaten aquatic life and human health by entering the food chain.
  • Solutions involve reducing plastic use, better waste management, and choosing sustainable materials.

Understanding Microplastics

As the name suggests, microplastics are small plastic particles, only less than five millimeters. They are so small that they have become a major concern regarding the impact of plastic pollution in the world.

According to data from Statista, as many as 1.3 million metrics of microplastics from textiles, pellets, and personal care products leak into the ocean, contributing to ocean microplastic contamination. The existence of these microplastics in marine ecosystems certainly threatens the survival of aquatic life due to the health effects of microplastic ingestion.

where do microplastics come from
Understanding Microplastics

Apart from the sources above, where do microplastics come from? Based on the type and source, microplastics are divided into two types: primary and secondary.

Primary microplastics are those made by manufacturers for various industrial needs, one of which is resin pellets used in industry and microbeads in personal care products. 

On the other hand, the breakdown of larger plastic waste due to environmental factors, such as UV degradation of plastics, waves, and wind, results in secondary microplastics. Speaking of characteristics, microplastics have various shapes, such as spheres, fragments, and fibers. Thus, their 5-millimeter sizes and irregular shapes make it easier for them to infiltrate into our environment.

Microplastics in marine ecosystems, for example, will have a negative impact on the survival of aquatic flora and fauna.

Moreover, data from UNEP states that 19 to 23 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the ocean, leading to ocean microplastic contamination as the plastic debris is degraded by the waves over time. 

where do microplastics come from
Microplastic Particles Float in the Ocean

Despite their danger to the environment, you also cannot overstate the macroplastics pollution, such as bags and other visible plastic debris because they are also sources of microplastics.

In addition to macroplastics, another type of plastic that merits attention is nanoplastics. They are smaller than microplastics, measuring between 1 and 1000 nanometers or less than 0.001 millimeters. This size increases their potential to pollute the environment and enter ecosystems through various pathways.

Primary Sources of Microplastics

Primary microplastics are those tiny particles that are generated by the manufacturers intentionally. These sources include microbeads for cosmetics and personal care products, industrial pellets, and resin particles.

Considering the sources, humans are the main carriers that introduce primary microplastics in marine ecosystems and the environment in general, leading to negative consequences.

Hence, our experts will explore the sources of primary microplastics to develop effective strategies for reducing microplastics in the following section.

1. Synthetic Textiles

The European Union data states that 20% of textile waste contributes to global water pollution each year. Although synthetic textiles visibly contain plastics, the basic materials of these textiles are notable sources of microplastics, known as microfibers.

Some types of synthetic fabrics that shed microfibers into our ecosystem include spandex, acrylic, polyester, and nylon.

The washing process of these materials results in the release of microfibers from clothing into water systems, causing water pollution. Their small size allows them to escape standard microplastic filtration and removal, leading them to end up in rivers, lakes, and even oceans.

Plastic and Polymer Industry
Plastic and Polymer Industry

Once these microfibers enter freshwater sources, they interfere with the aquatic ecosystem. Marine organisms unintentionally ingesting microplastics can face detrimental health consequences over time. It poses a danger to both marine life and humans.

The discovery of microplastics in the food chain raises concerns as polluted fish and various seafood may be consumed by humans.

Considering the industrial contribution to microplastic pollution, particularly from textiles, consumers need to be wiser in choosing environmentally friendly fabrics. Our experts suggest shifting from synthetic to natural materials like cotton, which is more sustainable.

2. Personal Care Products

Perhaps you might think that microplastics from cosmetic products are generated by the packaging. While that’s true, it’s not the main source. Microbeads are one of the types of microplastics produced as exfoliants or scrubbing agents in skincare, body care, and cosmetics.

Not only that, but they are also often incorporated into toothpaste to introduce gritty textures. Unfortunately, the use of microbeads has garnered a lot of controversy due to their staggering environmental impact.

Microbeads washed down drains will enter water systems, interfering with aquatic ecosystems. Fish and other marine species may mistake those tiny particles for food, but, in fact, they can harm them due to the leakage of toxic substances used in the production of microbeads.

Given these negative consequences, several countries have released government policies on microplastics, one of which is to ban the use of microbeads, such as Canada, the United States, and some European countries. The bans aim to reduce microplastic pollution and preserve aquatic ecosystems.

3. Industrial Processes

Apart from the use of plastic-based items by consumers, industrial activities play a significant role in contributing to microplastic pollution. So, when you ask where do microplastics come from, the absolute answer is that they originate from the production of microplastics by the industry.

where do microplastics come from
Industrial Processes

The plastic manufacturing process involves raw polymers that may potentially leach into aquatic ecosystems during the washing process. Furthermore, the wear and abrasion of plastic machinery and equipment also release plastics, specifically airborne microplastics, into the air and water, further exacerbating pollution.

Although manufacturers have microplastic filtration and removal systems, the small size of these particles allows them to escape into water bodies. Additionally, some primary microplastic products, such as nurdles, can contribute to contaminating water systems if handled improperly.

That being said, it is essential to pay attention to effective waste management to reduce pollution that has detrimental impacts on our environment.

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Secondary Sources of Microplastics

Unlike primary microplastics that are intentionally manufactured by the producers, secondary microplastics come from the breakdown of larger plastic materials due to environmental factors.

Breakdown of Larger Plastic Materials
Secondary Sources of Microplastics from the Breakdown of Larger Plastic Materials

As public awareness of microplastics grows, exploring where do microplastics come from becomes crucial to discover new strategies to combat this issue. Besides, it helps improve government policies on microplastics to reduce plastic pollution and preserve the environment.

1. Chemical Degradation

One of the most influential factors in the formation of microplastics in the environment is the process of chemical degradation involving hydrolysis and oxidation. When plastic is exposed to water, hydrolysis comes into play, breaking down the polymer chains and leading to the release of smaller plastic particles.

This process is followed by chemical reactions triggered by various environmental conditions, such as sunlight, UV light, wind, and other atmospheric factors, accelerating this degradation process.

While these natural mechanisms are at work, human activities, as discussed earlier in the first section, further exacerbate microplastic pollution. As a result, this poses a challenge to our ecosystems and compels us to consider how to find strategies to prevent this phenomenon from worsening.

2. Physical Degradation

In addition to chemical reactions, physical degradation is a highly influential phenomenon in the release of microplastics into ecosystems.

Several factors contribute to the rapid physical degradation of plastics, including UV light, weathering, and mechanical actions. UV exposure initiates the phenomenon of photodegradation, leading to the fragmentation of polymer chains in large plastic materials.

Moreover, the combination of temperature fluctuations, moisture, and sunlight exposure further accelerates the process of the physical breakdown of plastic polymers. High temperatures intensify the degradation rate, increasing the abundance of microplastics in the environment, while moisture remains closely linked to hydrolysis, as discussed in point number one.

Not only that but winds and waves, which fall under mechanical actions, also join forces to aid in the fragmentation process of plastics. With these factors, it’s vital to understand the influence of physical degradation in the emergence of microplastics in nature to help address the escalating issue of microplastic pollution.

3. Biological Degradation

Another answer to the question, where do microplastics come from? is biological degradation. As its name suggests, the ingestion of plastics by biological creatures, like marine organisms, impacts the presence of microplastics in the ocean.

When these organisms accidentally ingest plastics, these materials will reside in their stomachs and undergo a process of biological degradation by enzymes present in the digestive tract. This process poses health issues for fish, shellfish, or marine organisms that consume them and potentially leads to the biomagnification of microplastics through the marine food chain.

In addition to marine organisms, microbes also assist in degrading plastic materials into tiny particles called microplastics. They possess specific enzymes that aid in breaking down the polymer chain into small fragments.

Based on both mechanisms, we can conclude that the biochemical activities have a significant impact on increasing the quantity of microplastics in nature.

Microplastics in Freshwater and Soil

The long-standing concern over microplastic accumulation in soil and freshwater systems arises from its interference with aquatic life and human health, with negative impacts extending far beyond initial expectations.

Generally, microplastic accumulation in soil occurs due to chemical and biological processes influenced by environmental factors and microbial degradation. In agriculture, microplastics are introduced through practices such as mulching, composting, or sewage sludge that may contain these tiny particles.

Microplastics in Freshwater and Soil
Microplastics in Freshwater and Soil

According to a journal, sewage sludge can contain 97.66 microplastic particles per gram. Meanwhile, a 2016 study revealed that between 110,000 to 730,000 tons of microplastics are present in agricultural soils in North America and Europe, a staggering amount.

Moreover, irrigation practices with water contaminated by microplastics further increase the rate of microplastics in agricultural soil. This combination undoubtedly affects crop health and beneficial soil microbes, leading to poor harvest and soil quality.  The damages further connect to the potential impact on human health when microplastics are taken up by plants and enter the food chain.

Simultaneously, microplastics have long been present in freshwater systems, enduring in rivers, lakes, and oceans for extended periods before degrading into smaller particles.

Collected from the Ocean
Microplastics Collected from the Ocean

This poses a significant threat to marine life, as their ingestion can cause physical harm and contribute to the bioaccumulation process, endangering the entire ecosystem, including humans. What’s more concerning is the leaching of plastic additives that will contaminate the water, risking the health of animals living around the water sources.

These alarming conditions should prompt governments to implement stricter policies related to microplastic production in industries, as they are major contributors. Additionally, campaigns promoting the replacement of plastic-based products with biodegradable alternatives are necessary to curb plastic usage.

Final Thought

So, where do microplastics come from? They result from several factors, including the intentional production of microplastics and the environmental degradation of plastic materials. Despite their tiny sizes, microplastics have a highly damaging impact on the environment and ecosystems. In soil, they can affect microbial balance and accumulate in crops, posing risks if consumed by humans.

Meanwhile, microplastic pollution in water interferes with aquatic life. With these various negative consequences, we must collectively strive to prevent further pollution. Governments can enact regulations minimizing the production of microplastics in industries, while individuals can collaborate to reduce plastic usage. It is our responsibility to preserve our environment for a greener future for generations to come.

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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

Which foods have the most microplastics?

Microplastics in the food chain are a serious problem because they have a direct impact on human health. Among all, there are some foods that have the most microplastics you should be aware of, including shellfish, fish, and salt.

They are contaminated by microplastics due to high global microplastic pollution levels in the ocean. In addition, microplastics in drinking water are also a concern because many microplastic research and studies have proven the findings of these tiny particles in bottled water.

Does paint create microplastics?

Paint is one of the microplastic pollution sources. They are commonly made of plastic-based polymers like acrylics that will break down into tiny plastic particles over time due to abrasion and weathering.

Not only that but the application and removal of paint also contribute to the environmental impact of microplastics from paint. To tackle this situation, preventing microplastic contamination from the paint can be done by opting for an eco-friendly paint formulation.

Does all plastic turn into microplastics?

Not all plastic turns into microplastics although they undergo a plastic waste degradation process. Generally, the process can occur due to environmental factors, such as UV degradation of plastics, weathering, environmental conditions, and types of plastics.

Some kinds of plastics will degrade into smaller particles, while microplastics are commonly manufactured on a small scale. They also measure less than 5 millimeters and are the result of the breakdown of larger plastic items, such as microplastics from cosmetic products. This characteristic is the challenge of the environmental impact of microplastics.

Does ground water have microplastics?

You know this is a serious issue when finding out about microplastics in drinking water and groundwater. These tiny plastic particles only have a size of less than 5 millimeters, making them easy to penetrate the soil and reach groundwater in various pathways, including plastic waste degradation and surface water runoff.

Additionally, the discovery of microplastics in freshwater systems certainly raises concerns about the health effects of microplastic ingestion for aquatic ecosystems and humans.

Do all clothes have microplastics?

The textile industrial contribution to microplastic pollution is huge, but not all clothes have microplastics. Nonetheless, many synthetic fibers in waterways come from polyesters, and nylon, and shed tiny plastic fibers during the washing process of the fabrics. These microfiber releases from clothing can pose a threat to our environment.

Therefore, preventing microplastic contamination is necessary to reduce the risks of microplastic pollution. One sustainable solution to the microplastic problem in textiles that you as a consumer can do is opt for cotton or wool. Both are less likely to release microplastics in freshwater systems and ecosystems in general.

Does rainwater have microplastics?

Knowing the presence of microplastics and synthetic fibers in waterways, it’s not surprising that rainwater can contain microplastics and microfibers. This process may occur through the atmosphere and the tiny particles are precipitated in the rain.

Likewise, the airborne microplastic pollution sources that cause the exposure of these particles to the rain include fragmentation of larger plastic waste and atmospheric deposition. Besides, we can’t deny the role of industrial contribution to microplastic pollution, especially those intended to produce microplastic for various purposes, such as cosmetics.