Microplastic Pollution

by Rumeysa Yilmaz

Microplastics are everywhere. Photo via plp609/Depositphotos

Microplastics, or plastic debris smaller than 5 mm in length, have increasingly been found in waterways and have been a major source of pollution for decades. These particles that enter the environment are so small they easily pass through water treatment processes, decreasing water quality and causing a threat to marine wildlife. Many of them are products of floating waste that have constantly been exposed to UV radiation.

And plastic can easily be mass-produced, due to an abundance of its raw materials; the more the production, the greater the pollution.

“Micro” aggression

Marine animals specifically are at a high risk of danger, as most get stuck in plastic and end up consuming it, resulting in the starvation of many aquatic animals. Around 8 million tons of plastic end up in oceans every year — which is enough plastic to outweigh all the fish by 2050! After all, a total of 51 trillion microplastics float in the ocean.

The digestive system of this poor sperm whale (left) inflamed after not being able to digest kilos of plastic and other waste (right). Photos via the Department of Tourism, Culture and Environment of Murcia, Spain.

In fact, in 2018, this dead sperm whale washed up in Spain was found to have consumed 32 kilos of nets, plastic bags, and a drum. On the same note, the Yangtze River in China alone causes 1.5 million tons of plastic to enter the ocean each year.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, plastic microbeads were first found in personal care products nearly fifty years ago and since then, they’ve been starting to replace natural ingredients. (This interactive site summarizes and visualizes the information we currently know.)

In the U.S., President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, on December 28, 2015, outlawing the usage of plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products. As a matter of fact, a single tube of exfoliating facewash can consist of more than 350,000 microbeads!

Speaking of tubes and bottles, studies have shown BPA — a chemical that makes plastic bottles transparent — to interfere with our hormonal system. Frankly, 93% of people have BPA in their urine. Similarly, DEHP is a chemical historically used to make plastics more flexible; however, it may be correlated with cancer.

Microbeads found in shower gel. Photo by BBC News.

Not just plastics

Plastic pollution isn’t the only environmental pollution we face, and some of its substitutes could have a greater environmental impact.

According to a study by the Danish Government, producing a single-use plastic bag requires so little energy and produces far less carbon dioxide emissions compared to a cotton bag, that it would need to be used 7100 times before it would have a lower impact on the environment than the plastic bag. (This article breaks down the details of the Danish study.)

Plastic pollution is a complicated problem, but your daily actions still have a huge impact.

What you can do:

  • Take reusable bags when shopping
  • Use refillable containers
  • Add microfiber collectors to your washer
  • Wear more natural fibers (cotton) — natural fibers do not release microplastics
  • Volunteer to help clean our environment
  • Reduce, reuse, and recycle


#ARCHIVES: This article was previously published in Hiraya Zine Volume 1, Issue 3: The Environment last May 2021. Download the zine for free here.

This issue is presented in partnership with The Growth Initiative, Wavefarers, and Youth Strike 4 Climate Philippines.



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