What is microplastic and why is a huge problem for the environment?

Updated: Sep 18, 2019

A report published in the Royal Society Open Science revealed that microplastic is found in the water that we drink every day.

The microplastic is the closest thing to a bacterium: undetectable to the naked eye, it is everywhere, it is a problem that affects all people, and it is impossible to avoid it. Its shape varies with the passage of time, but usually are plastic fragments of a millimeter (or less) that accompany various products such as creams and detergents.

It is known that the microplastic has existed for 20 years (as part of cleaning products) and at first it did not represent a latent threat. However, studies conducted by the Royal Society, the State University of New York and the University of Minnesota during the last decade, analyzing marine and freshwater samples from the five continents, revealed that there are at least 4,000 million fragments per every square kilometer of beaches, corals and marine surfaces. On the other hand, 83% of tap water is contaminated with this waste.

This figure alarmed the main authorities in the environment, especially the Environmental Protection Agency (Washington DC), since in the United States they found the highest rate of contamination with 94%, followed by Lebanon (93.8%), India (82.4%) and Ecuador (79.2%).

"This plastic is made of polymers and conventional polyethylene, materials that do not degrade and create a layer of dirt on the marine surface. Our study reveals that all water can be contaminated. That is why we call for the development of new materials, and an extensive evaluation of environmental risks, "said Nora-Charlotte Pauli, author of the study.

Although the consequences of consuming these fragments of microplastics for human life are unknown, their effects are clear in marine and wild life.

Another study by the organization Orb Media shows that an average person can consume 14 microplastic particles per day, since they are not only found in drinking water, but also in fish, beer, sea salt, and any product that comes in contact with water.

The main recommendation of experts to mitigate pollution in the environment is to stop using products containing these agents.



Orb Media revealed that six kilograms of synthetic fabrics in the washing machine releases more than 700 thousand fibers that end up in water and in the environment. These fragments are found on rugs and all kinds of clothing that has polyethylene or nylon fibers.


What do you think the 'nuggets' that you feel when you clean your skin are made? Of micro-pearls? Companies use these agents to thoroughly cleanse their skin, which does not affect their health. However, after use, these fragments end up at the bottom of the ocean and in drinking water.


There are toothpastes that have particles that can be seen with the naked eye and promise to make your teeth whiter or provide more freshness. These fragments are microplastics that help in the cleaning of your teeth, it is true, but after using them finish in the sea and even in the air.


The organization Orb Media revealed that 25% of fish from Indonesia and California have plastic waste. The researchers found that this residue adheres to zooplankton, the food of these marine species.


All kinds of detergents and disinfectants with scrubbing agents have microplastics such as polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP). These are the same beads banned in cosmetics. It would be better to use a natural material such as ground coconut shell.


Filters are made from cellulose acetate, a non-biodegradeable plastic. They can shed microfibers and, once used, give off high levels of toxins, including nicotine. Cigarette butts are a serious pollutant in the oceans and are the most commonly recovered item in beach cleanups.


Beloved of kindergarten craft teachers, most glitter is made from PET or polyvinyl chloride film (PVC) and is very hard to dispose of. You could instead get biodegradable cellulose film glitter, made from eucalyptus trees.


Baby wipes, hand wipes, make-up removing wipes, all of these products are typically made from polyester, polyethylene, and polypropylene – or a mixture of those plastics and natural fibres. Not only do they block sewers and cause fat bergs (a large mass of fat and waste material that forms in sewers), the plastic doesn’t break down. They are also a source of plastic fibers.


Plastic dust from the thermoplastic paints used for road markings, ships and houses is found across the surface of the oceans. But not all paints contain plastics. Look for paints that use linseed oil or latex as binders.


Paper takeaway cups are lined with a layer of polyethylene. Like teabags, the paper element breaks down, but the plastic breaks up into tiny pieces if the cup is littered or composted. Mixed materials need to be handled by a specialist recycling facility.

To address the microplastic crisis we face, we really need to reconsider our consumption habits and reduce the amounts of plastic we use. Of the 8.3 billion metric tons that have been produced over the past decades, 6.3 billion metric tons have become plastic waste. Of that, only nine percent has been recycled. The vast majority, nearly 79 %, is accumulating in landfills or sloughing off in the natural environment as litter. Meaning: at some point, much of it ends up in the oceans, the final sink.