Published 1 year ago.
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Image: Stanley’s IceFlow Flip Straw bottle not only eliminates the need for disposable bottles, it removes ocean plastic waste | Stanley/Facebook
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The impact of microplastics on our world is daunting; but every step we take to curb the creation of more microplastics, while also reducing how much of them continue lurking in the environment, makes a difference.
Sometimes the smallest things can cause the biggest problems. Just like tiny
termites can destroy a home and microscopic microbes can plunge
the world into a pandemic, plastic pollution has its own minuscule monster:
Microplastics are small plastic particles and bits that are generally
characterized as less than five millimeters long or thick. While most
microplastics in the environment are manufacturing byproducts or the result of
larger plastic pieces or textiles breaking down over time, there was also
concern regarding the intentional addition of microplastics to products — such
as the addition of microplastic
to skin care products to provide exfoliation.
Fortunately, there was quick agreement that the addition of microbeads is
unnecessary and widely
— which led to the successful curbing of plastic in this form. However, the
growing issue surrounding secondary microplastics — the result of degradations
of larger plastic-based items, most notably synthetic fibers such as nylon,
shedding small fragments through regular wear, tear and
marine paint, fishing
and other riverine or ocean plastic
are other perpetrators of proliferating microplastics.
Beyond the common contributors, secondary microplastics enter the ecosystem
thanks to products such as packaging’s exposure to the sun, ocean waves and
other destructive elements.
It’s microplastics’ miniature nature that makes them such an insidious issue.
Their path to plaguing our oceans follows a number of avenues; and even once
these plastics reach their intended “destination,” they continue to break down
into smaller and smaller pieces and further permeate marine
Microplastics, which never fully degrade, are being found in increasingly high
concentrations in sea life of all kinds. Sea life suffers greatly from these
microplastics, which have been shown to reduce lifespans, lower immune
responses, and trigger cell death. And when humans or other animals consume
these microplastic-plagued creatures, those microplastics then enter our bodies
and cause another cycle of health issues.
Microplastics are a known endocrine disruptor in humans, with the ability to
impact the nervous and immune systems. While the level of microplastics present
is still considered too low to trigger more significant health issues, the
plastics don't often pass completely through the human (and other animal) body,
yielding higher and higher concentrations of plastics in our systems over time.
Humans already unintentionally consume over 40,000 microplastic particles each
year. This amount is sadly destined to increase, alongside our overall
production of plastic and continue disposal of 70 percent of that plastic each
year — a non-trivial percentage of which is now permeating all living systems.
For as long as humans continue to produce plastic, microplastic pollution will
continue. Even if we stopped producing new plastic today, there are still an
estimated five billion tons of plastic
already in our environments — some of which will degrade, fragment and
eventually add to the existing pool of microplastics. We are not stopping
production of new
— but this, like climate change, is a cumulative problem; so the more we can
reduce, reuse and recycle, the more quickly we can stabilize the unsustainable
growth of microplastics in our environment.
There are a number of measures we can take to curb the creation of additional
microplastics while simultaneously reducing how much of them continue lurking in
This is by far the most important thing consumers, businesses and manufacturers
can do to reduce the amount of plastic being created each year. Unfortunately,
we’re on pace to more than double the amount produced
This first phase of mitigation requires a major commitment to simply make fewer
things from plastic — especially single-use items. However, this doesn’t mean a
wholesale abandonment of plastic as a manufacturing material.
Plastic’s flexibility, sanitary properties and lightweight nature are essential
to the modern world; and bamboo, glass, metal, paper and other
won’t completely rid us of new, virgin plastic products and parts. But just
because it’s the cheapest or easiest option doesn’t mean that plastic should be
the default, go-to material for every application. Brands must get more creative
and innovative, and make products with less or no plastic when possible.
The future will include plenty of plastic; but that doesn’t mean we can’t
drastically cut virgin plastic production and — most importantly — eliminate
plastic in the waste stream, which leads us to our second step.
Reusing plastic products is usually better than tossing them into a recycling
bin and hoping for the best. Even with a 100 percent capture and recycling rate,
there’s still lots of energy used and CO2 produced in the recycling process and
the related transportation logistics.
When manufacturers and consumers take a reuse-first approach to all the plastic
in their worlds, they can cut down on how many new plastic products they’ll
need. Opting for more durable, higher-quality plastic
products intended to be reused is the wise
move in this case.
However, this is not a one-size-fits-all solution — as single-use
aren’t always meant to be reused at all. For example, disposable PET water
bottles can degrade after a few cycles of scrubbing and washing, increasing the
amount of microplastics produced … and putting some of them directly into the
bodies of the well-meaning individuals diligently reusing their Poland
Springs or Dasani water bottle. Sadly, the best fate for single-use
plastics is to get them immediately into the recycling stream.
The more important point is that there was no need to buy those disposable
bottles at all, in many cases. Reusable water bottles are a great example of how
one smart purchase can prevent many subsequent plastic buys. Investing in a more
sustainable water bottle — such as Stanley’s IceFlow Flip Straw
made with stainless steel and Oceanworks recycled
ocean plastic — will both save countless plastic water bottles from entering the
waste stream and save the consumer money over its lifetime.
Our final “R” can combat microplastics on multiple fronts. First, any plastic
that can be recycled should be recycled. This reduces the amount of plastic
waste ending up in landfills — or worse, the environment — and preempts their
eventual degradation into microplastics.
Unfortunately, the mismanagement of plastics in the waste
is a direct contributor to this crisis. When plastics aren’t properly collected
and transported to a recycling facility, they’re far more likely to get broken
down into smaller and smaller fragments — whether it’s from the sun’s rays or
the ocean’s waves. Every plastic bottle, takeaway package or wrapper has the
potential to turn into millions of microplastic particles.
Lastly, there are even opportunities to capture and recycle microplastics
themselves. Microplastics generated in manufacturing can end up directly in the
waste stream; so, producers need to look for alternatives to keep this material
in the closed loop. Manufacturers should seek opportunities to capture and
recycle microplastics generated during their production processes or opt for
higher-quality materials that are less likely to shed
The impact of microplastics on our world is daunting; but every step we take
does make a difference.
Published May 10, 2022 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.