ALL ABOUT MICROPLASTICS
There is a great deal of half-knowledge in circulation on the topic of microplastics. It is claimed, for example, that plastic packaging is its primary cause. But it is a little-known fact that in particular car tyre abrasion, textiles, detergents and cosmetics are all major sources of microplastics. We have therefore compiled the most important information from scientific sources below.
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are ‘tiny plastic particles up to 5 mm in diameter‘ (definition of the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP). Particles that are smaller than one micrometre (μm) are referred to as nanoplastics. The distinction between the two is more than a mere formality because it is very difficult to separate such small particles from their environment with the simple methods used for microplastics, such as filtration.
A distinction is made between primary and secondary microplastics. The former refers to small particles that are deliberately produced and used, such as those used in cosmetic products (toothpaste, exfoliating products, etc.). The latter is the result of the breakdown of plastic products, particularly when these end up in nature. Sunlight, sea salt, bacteria and abrasion accelerate the breakdown process. The environmental consequences vary depending on the type of plastic, and these are not yet entirely understood. It is therefore all the more important that plastics be collected, disposed of correctly and recycled. Each and every one of us can play a part here.
Where do microplastics come from?
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 3.2 million tonnes of microplastics end up in the environment every year. But where exactly do microplastics come from and where can microplastics be found?
- The primary causes of microplastics are synthetic textiles and car tyre wear
- Plastic packaging does not contribute to putting primary microplastics in the environment and the ocean
- Sewage treatment plants, industrial effluents and areas contaminated with tyre wear have been identified as hot spots for microplastics contamination (UBA)
- Only a rough estimate can be made of the contribution made by littering in Austria, this being estimated at less than 0.5% of all the plastic waste collected (UBA)
- This small proportion can be further reduced if plastic packaging is disposed of correctly and recycled
What is ALPLA doing to tackle the problem of microplastics?
ALPLA pursues multiple avenues to prevent and tackle the problem of microplastics:
Microplastics are a serious hazard in particular for the marine ecosystem. And it is not just an issue of marine pollution with a material which is extremely durable and which takes hundreds of years to be broken down. The impact on marine organisms such as seals, fish and mussels, which ingest microplastics passively or via their food, is also a problem. According to an article on nature.com, perhaps the simplest form of damage, at least with regard to marine organisms, could be organisms swallowing microplastics of no nutritional value and therefore not eating enough food to survive.
Based on our food chain, it stands to reason that microplastics can be found in the human body. This has also already been confirmed by recent scientific studies. Research in this area is still in its infancy, so little is known at present about the possible health impacts on humans. Researchers believe that the concentrations of microplastics and nanoplastics in the environment are currently too low to be harmful to human health.
We need to make a distinction here again between primary and secondary microplastics. Secondary microplastics mostly end up in the oceans due to plastic waste being disposed of incorrectly. Every one of us can play a part in preventing this by collecting plastics and disposing of them correctly. Primary microplastics, meanwhile, are released first and foremost due to the use of products containing plastics and much less so also during production, shipment and recycling. According to the IUCN, primary microplastics find their way into the oceans via four main pathways:
- Direct losses into the ocean, e.g. marine coatings
- Wind dispersion, e.g. particles from car tyre abrasion
- Road run-off, e.g. of road markings
- Wastewater treatment facilities, e.g. fibres from household laundry
The best-known use is their exfoliating effect. Particles smaller than 60 µm are less suitable – the ideal size is around 420 µm. The plastics used are polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyamide (PA), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE, Teflon), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polystyrene (PS), polyurethane (PUR) and various copolymers (UBA microplastics study).
According to a study conducted by the University of Münster which examined 38 different mineral waters in single-use and reusable plastic bottles, glass bottles and beverage cartons, there are traces of microplastics in reusable bottles made of both plastic and glass. Fewer particles were found in single-use bottles and beverage cartons. The study author Darena Schymanski assumes this primarily has something to do with the cleaning needed in the case of reusable bottles. Tap water has the lowest level of microplastics. More information on microplastics in drinking water is available from the WHO.
There are various options here:
- You can identify soluble plastic compounds which are harmful to the environment, for example microplastics in cosmetics, detergents and cleaning products, by looking for names such as acrylate, carbomer, crosspolymer, copolymer and polybutene in lists of ingredients. Tip: There is a ban on soluble plastics being used in certified natural cosmetics and ecological cleaning products.
- Do not use synthetic textiles (polyester, nylon or acrylic): natural fibres such as cotton, wool, silk and linen are biodegradable. In addition, a short washing cycle at a low temperature and a full load of washing is better for synthetic textiles.
- It is also important that plastics be disposed of correctly so that they remain in the loop. Tip: Collect plastic packaging you find in the environment and dispose of it.
- Use public transport more to reduce tyre wear.
- IUCN 2017
- ‘Plastic and microplastic in the environment’
- ‘Nanoplastic should be better understood’, Nature Nanotechnology
- ‘Microplastics are everywhere – but are they harmful?’
- 'Microplastics - what you can do about it!', Foundation for Consumer Protection
- ‘What is microplastic? How it is created and what you can do about it', bergzeit.at
- 'Microplastics - An (invisible) danger', NABU
- 'Plastics in the environment: micro- and macroplastics', fraunhofer.de
- 'Microplastics in drinking water: plastic bottle or better glass bottle?', handelsblatt.com
- 'Worldwide wastewater problem microplastics overwhelms sewage treatment plants. Solutions are less plastic consumption and environmentally sound textile production', BUND e.V.
- 'The microplastic that comes out of the washing machine', German Marine Foundation