The issue of microplastics has assumed increasing global significance following the numerous studies conducted in recent decades which have highlighted both their extreme diffusion in all ecosystems on the planet and their potential impacts on the environment and human health.
Recent studies have shown that these very small plastic fragments can accumulate in the tissues of organisms causing them damage, even if the impact of these substances over time is still being studied.
The discovery of microplastics did not take place until 1972, when marine biologist Richard Thompson found small pieces of plastic in the intestines of various seabirds.
From that moment on various researches followed one another, at first only sporadic and then systematic, such that in the 90s of the last century a certain concern began to be seriously felt regarding the presence of microplastics in the environment.
In the decades that followed, it was gradually understood how advanced their diffusion was and various initiatives were implemented aimed at removing the already existing microplastics, but not at solutions that could avoid creating new ones.
The reasons are to be found in the still poor knowledge of the subject at the time (some things are not clear even today), in the difficulty of finding alternative materials to plastic that at the same time cost little and in the economic pressures aimed at discouraging plastic reduction policies.
However, a number of actions have been taken in recent years to prevent the creation of new microplastics by promoting biodegradable materials and reducing the use of both single-use plastics and microplastics found in cosmetics and cleaning products.
What are microplastics
Microplastics are a series of plastic fragments smaller than 5 mm which circulate freely in the environment and which mainly derive from the degradation of commonly used plastic objects (such as bottles, containers, toys, bags, fabrics, cosmetics etc...).
The dimensions of the microplastics vary, therefore, from a few microns to a few millimetres. However, when their dimensions are really very small and precisely less than 1 micron, we talk about nanoplastics.
Types of microplastics
Microplastics differ not only in terms of size, but also in terms of their shape and chemical composition. The main types of microplastics are:
- Particles - small plastic fragments of various shapes and sizes originating from degradation processes of larger objects or from industrial processes;
- Threads - plastic filaments of variable length deriving from textile products such as carpets and rugs or from fabrics used for cleaning;
- Fibers - plastic fibers deriving from the washing of synthetic fabric clothes. They constitute a conspicuous part of the microplastics that we find in the environment;
- Film - plastic films usually used in packaging;
- Granules - small plastic spheres found in cosmetic products and detergents for personal care and household cleaning;
- Foam - plastic foam used as a lightweight material for insulation, packaging and upholstery (e.g. car seats).
How microplastics originate
The ways in which microplastics originate are varied. Most of them come from the defragmentation of plastic objects that degrade over time into smaller and smaller pieces. Another part of microplastics, on the other hand, comes from products of other nature which contain them and which release them into the environment.
Among the non-plastic products that in any case contain microplastics we find first of all synthetic clothing such as for example those in polyester which, after washing, release plastic fibers which, passing through domestic drain pipes, end up in rivers and in the seas.
Another cause of microplastics is the cosmetic department; in fact, in some products (such as toothpastes or scrubs) there are microplastics that act as exfoliating agents. Similarly, we can find microplastics with abrasive functions in products for the washing machine or dishwasher or in some household cleaning products.
Rubber is another material, a source of microplastics. Automotive tires release microplastics as they wear, while rubber products such as synthetic playgrounds release them during use.
A final example is agricultural products that contain microplastics such as pesticides and fertilizers which, by their very nature, are sprayed directly into the environment.
The impact of microplastics
Microplastics have different types of impacts already known although, as mentioned above, they are still being researched.
As far as the environmental impact is concerned, we know that microplastics are a danger to all ecosystems, as they not only alter the quality of soils, sediments and waters, but they run along the entire food chain starting from a small living being that ingests them.
The latter, in addition to acting as a carrier of these substances in the food chain, can also itself suffer serious physical damage and have toxic effects from these pieces of plastic.
The impact on humans and their health starts from exposure to microplastics and their involuntary intake. Traces of microplastics have been found in the human body which plausibly enter by inhalation, by skin contact or by ingestion through food.
According to some scientific researches, in fact, microplastics are present in the air (as an effect of the combustion of plastic or rubber), in synthetic fabrics, in many foods (both of vegetable and animal origin) also as a result of the release from plastic packaging and they have even been found in drinking water.
Although there is still no definitive evidence on the long-term negative consequences of microplastics on human health, several studies indicate that they can cause stress, inflammation, metabolic and neurotoxic disorders and ultimately cancer.
What is being done around the world to reduce microplastic pollution
The direction of environmental sustainability that has been undertaken in recent years has the objective of finding solutions to address the problem of plastic in the environment in general by reducing its production and use.
Preventing the dispersion, managing and reducing pollution from microplastics represent, in particular, the aims of the efforts that the governments of many countries are making globally, also driven by the growing attention of the media and the population on this topic.
In the legal field, an attempt is made to limit the production of plastic and the use of products containing microplastics by passing laws and regulations, such as for example the law issued by the European Union which from 2021 prohibits the use of disposable plastic products such as plates, cutlery, glasses and straws.
Furthermore, progress is being made in the scientific field with numerous research projects aimed at defining new solutions, both by implementing new alternative materials to plastic that are at the same time biodegradable, and by developing new technologies for the collection, recovery and recycling of microplastics.
There are also numerous awareness campaigns focused on what we can do in our daily lives to reduce pollution from microplastics and what are the consequences that their diffusion entails.
In any case, the response to this global problem must necessarily be a coordinated and long-term response that relies on international cooperation.
In this regard, in 2017, the United Nations Organization launched, through its environmental program (UNEP), #CleanSeas - the global awareness campaign on the health of the seas in the world - with the ambitious challenge of eliminating plastic pollution by 2030. More than 60 countries joined the campaign, whose intent was to get governments, private companies and ordinary people to take virtuous actions to reduce plastic pollution.
In 2019, the Barcelona Convention on Mediterranean waters was established, an international agreement that aims to reduce the amount of microplastics in the Mediterranean, one of the seas most affected by this phenomenon.
The protocol of this convention, called "Protocol for the prevention and reduction of pollution caused by microplastics in the Mediterranean marine environment" was adopted in February 2021 and includes measures to reduce the use of microplastics in products, improve the treatment of waste and prevent the abandonment of fishing gear that can cause the dispersion of microplastics in the marine environment.
What can we do in daily life to reduce the formation of microplastics
Each of us, in our daily lives, can decide to make prudent choices towards a more sustainable path. We must not be discouraged in thinking that after all it is nothing but a drop in the sea, because the sea is made of drops and every choice we make is important.
To prevent the formation of microplastic pollution for example:
- We significantly reduce the amount of disposable plastic.
Instead of bottles of water we use a filter jug. For the smaller bottles to always carry with us, let's replace them with glass, steel or aluminum bottles;
Instead of shopping bags we use a fabric shopper; let's always keep it in the bag or in the car so that we can use it when necessary;
Instead of disposable razors, let's buy a metal one which will last much longer and, over time, also guarantees us economic savings (we will only have to replace the blades);
Instead of plastic containers for storing food in the fridge, we choose glass ones. To bring lunch to the office, we can consider bamboo containers;
Instead of the traditional food film, we opt for the food film produced with beeswax which can be reused several times as it is washable;
Instead of completely plastic toothbrushes, we choose bamboo ones: bamboo is a 100% biodegradable material while the bristles are generally made of nylon 6 (a type of nylon that is more easily decomposed than other types of nylon);
Instead of the sponge for the shower or for washing the dishes in synthetic material, we choose those in loofah which have a natural exfoliating action and which are completely vegetable as they are obtained by drying the pulp of this fruit;
Instead of plastic brushes and combs, we choose wooden ones;
Instead of plastic pots for our plants, we use terracotta ones which also allow the roots of the plants to breathe.
- We wash synthetic fabrics at low temperatures and limit (or rather avoid) fabric softeners. In this way, the release of microplastics during washing is greatly reduced.
- If possible, we avoid the purchase of cosmetic products and cleaning detergents for personal and household use containing microplastics. Let's take a look at the label and check if they are plastic-free.
- We carry out a good waste sorting. Let's make sure to separate all the recyclable materials well and let's help ourselves with the indications on the packaging.
- Where possible, we opt for eco-friendly products made from natural biodegradable materials.