11 Easy Ways To Avoid Microplastics, Starting Today
Plastic. It’s everywhere in our modern world, from the containers that store our food to the bottles we drink from. All of the world, we rely on plastic for its convenience, affordability, and durability.
But there’s a hidden cost to all of this plastic.
Over time, plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Once they reach about 5mm in size or smaller, they become what are known as microplastics.
Microplastics might sound small and harmless, but make no mistake—these little plastic pieces are shaping up to be mega problems. These little plastic particles are stealthily invading our bodies and environments in alarming ways.
There are two main types: primary microplastics are intentionally manufactured small, like the microbeads in cosmetics. Secondary microplastics result from the weathering of bigger plastics—water bottles degrading into smaller bits or synthetic fabrics shedding fibers.
These tiny plastic particles are now virtually everywhere . Swirling in ocean waves, lurking in tap water, hiding in household dust, blowing on the breeze.
Today, we’ll be taking a deep look at microplastics: their potential effects on our health and the environment, and how we can avoid them.
The Startling Truth About Microplastics and Health
Microplastics are increasingly being found in the human body through various exposure pathways. They can be found in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the products we use daily.
You’re likely inhaling microplastics daily. A 2022 study analyzed human lung tissue samples and detected microplastics in all regions, indicating these particles can penetrate deep into the lungs. Among the most abundant microplastics were polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate fibers.
You’re also probably eating tens of thousands of microplastics annually through your food and drink.
According to this 2019 study, researchers estimated that the average adult consumes over 50,000 microplastic particles per year just from food and drink, and more if they only drink bottled water.
Many personal care and cosmetic products also contain plastic microbeads for exfoliating properties. When these products are used and washed off, large quantities of microplastics enter wastewater and eventually reach oceans and lakes.
Microplastics in the environment are emerging concerns due to their potential impacts on human health.
How Microplastics Might Impact Your Health
There are a number of disturbing ways that microplastics could impact human health, and they’re worth knowing about.
- A 2021 study found that microplastics can cause serious impacts on the human body, including physical stress and damage, apoptosis, necrosis, inflammation, oxidative stress and immune responses. Microplastics and nanoplastics can impair cellular metabolism in both in vitro and in vivo models.
- Another recent study found that microplastics can block the digestive system, stimulate the mucous membrane, and injure it. They can also disrupt hormone production and transport in the endocrine system. This can lead to metabolic, developmental, and reproductive disorders. They can also cause effects like inflammation, oxidative stress, lipid metabolism changes, gut microbiome imbalance, and neurotoxicity in human and animal cells.
It’s still unclear how much of an impact these microplastics could be having on our bodies over the long term. More research is critically needed, as microplastic pollution is increasing and we’re being routinely exposed to it.
How Microplastics Are Silently Destroying Ecosystems
Microplastics are also destroying our environment.
This 2017 study shows that ingestion of microplastics negatively impacts organisms across trophic levels. Some of the effects include reduced growth and reproduction, endocrine disruption, inflammation, and increased mortality. Microplastics reduce soil and sediment health as well by altering microbial communities, which can diminish nutrient cycling and productivity. Microplastics act as vectors for invasive species and pathogens, disrupting native ecosystems. Essentially, microplastics greatly affect biodiversity and ecosystem resilience.
Microplastics pervade the environment and human exposure seems to be virtually unavoidable.
The good news: more and more people are becoming aware of microplastics, and there are things we can do in our everyday lives to limit microplastic exposure and reduce plastic waste.
The Good News: How To Reduce Your Microplastic Exposure
While it’s impossible to completely avoid microplastics in the modern world, there are steps you can take to significantly reduce their exposure from food, water, air, and consumer products.
#1 – Don’t Microwave Plastic
You should never, ever microwave plastic—even plastic that’s labelled “microwave safe.”
A 2023 study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln studied the effects of microwaving plastic containers in a 1,000-watt microwave for three minutes. These containers were made of polypropylene and polyethylene, both of which are approved as safe to use by the United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA).
The results were shocking: when heated in the microwave, these containers can unleash up to 4.22 million microplastics and a whopping 2.11 billion nanoplastics per square centimeter into food and drink when microwaved for this short period of time.
The researchers exposed human kidney cells to very high concentrations of these particles, similar to what might be released after heating the plastics. They found that after 2-3 days, over 75% of the cells died when exposed to these high plastic particle levels. This means that microplastics could have real health impacts.
The message is clear: never microwave plastics, including plastic containers and plastic wraps. Instead, if you need to microwave your food, use a safer glass or ceramic microwavable container—never plastic.
#2 – Drink Filtered Tap Water
One thing is clear—when it comes to avoiding plastic ingestion, not all water is created equal.
A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health shows that there is growing evidence that tiny plastic particles are making their way into critical drinking water supplies worldwide.
The authors analyzed over 20 studies published in recent years detecting microplastics in tap water and various bottled water brands. The most common types found are plastic fragments, fibers, films and beads. They note that microplastic levels tend to be higher in bottled water compared to tap water. Of bottled water packages, reusable PET and glass bottles show the greatest microplastic accumulation.
But exactly how much plastic is there in bottled water? We looked deeper into the numbers.
A research group aimed to quantify the amounts of microplastic in bottled water and analyzed 259 individual bottles purchased from 19 locations across 9 countries. They found evidence of microplastic contamination in 93% of the individual water bottles tested. They measured smaller particle sizes in this study and detected an average of 325 particles of plastic per liter of bottled water, in comparison with 5.5 microparticles in tap water.
These early findings should nudge people to skip the bottles and drink from the tap instead. Filtering your own tap water may be a safer, more sustainable, and cost-effective option than relying on store-bought bottled water. This small change limits personal intake of microplastics and reduces plastic waste—which is the root of the problem.
#3 – Reduce Single-use Plastics
Single-use plastics have become commonplace, providing convenient solutions in our daily lives. But do these conveniences come at a cost?
The thing about plastics: they don’t degrade easily, they break down into smaller pieces over time and become microplastics. These microplastics end up everywhere and accumulate in ecosystems, potentially impacting wildlife and human health.
The results of a 2022 study showed that for aquatic invertebrates, microplastics cause a decline in fertility and slow down growth and development, while for fish, the microplastics cause structural damage to their organs. Another study suggested that the impact of microplastics on seabirds are in terms of problems on reproduction, nutrition, and survival.
Organizations conduct research to better understand the sources of plastic waste and explore solutions. For example, a recent audit by a global environmental organization has found that the biggest contributors to plastic production are some of the world’s most popular brands like Coca-Cola, Nestle, and Unilever.
While major corporations should definitely address their plastic usage, individuals also have power through their choices. Together, we can make small but meaningful differences.
Start by reusing plastics you already have and trying reusable alternatives when possible. With collective care and collaborative action, we can find ways to rely less on single-use plastics.
#4 – Change Your Laundry Routine
Microplastics from fabrics can shed during laundry due to the friction in washing machines and eventually enter our waterways and the environment. However, we can take simple, practical steps to prevent this issue.
One tip is to use washing machine filters. In a 2018 study, researchers found that two filters marketed to catch microfibers, the Cora Ball and Lint LUV-R filter, significantly reduced shedding from fleece fabrics during washing. The Lint LUV-R filter captured an average of 87% of microfibers released during laundry, while the Cora Ball, a plastic ball placed directly in the washing machine, captured 26%.
Another tip is to wash full loads of laundry. Filling the machine reduces excess abrasion between garments, which then results in less shedding of fibers. These small changes in laundry habits can make a difference.
Opting for natural material clothing when possible is another positive step.
#5 – Choose Natural Clothing
When choosing fabrics, natural materials like cotton and linen offer some advantages over synthetics. These materials typically don’t contain plastics, so they break down more easily over time.
In an interview with Richard Venditti, Ellis-Signe Olsson Professor of Pulp and Paper Science and Technology at NC State, he stated that natural fibers like cotton will biodegrade, while synthetics like polyester will persist in the environment.
As a result, fabrics made from natural fibers tend to shed fewer microfibers when washed compared to synthetics. The fibers that natural fabrics shed decompose more quickly.
This paper referenced another study that evaluated microplastics from sediments on beaches and discovered that washing synthetic clothes could be a major source of microplastic in waterways.
Choosing natural fabrics and textiles whenever possible is an effective way to reduce plastic waste from clothing and transition to more sustainable practices.
#6 – Avoid Plastic Microbeads
Microbeads are tiny manufactured plastic particles that are added to some personal care and cosmetic products as exfoliating and scrubbing agents.
This 2021 article identified microbeads as a problematic source of microplastics. Since microbeads do not break down easily, when they pass through water treatment plants, they end up in large water bodies and marine ecosystems.
A study cited in the aforementioned article estimated that 11% of the plastic waste discharged into the North Sea are microbeads from microplastics and nanoplastics. Marine organisms sometimes mistake these small plastics for food and enter the food chain as well.
The good news is that many companies and countries are now phasing out the use of microbeads in these products. Safer, biodegradable alternatives like salt crystals, coffee grounds, or jojoba beads can provide similar exfoliating benefits without harming marine life. By choosing products wisely and being aware of ingredients, we as consumers can help reduce the flow of microplastics into the environment.
#7 – Reduce Seafood Consumption
As mentioned earlier, many marine organisms consume microplastics from the oceans. So eating less seafood is one easy way to avoid microplastics.
One study claims that people who eat a lot of shellfish can ingest up to 11,000 microplastics per year. While further research is still needed to fully assess the potential risks, such a high amount of microplastics in seafood could pose a threat to food safety and should be cause for concern. Reducing seafood intake may minimize exposure.
Additionally, some seafood processing and packaging involves single-use plastics. Generally, it’s a good idea to reduce your seafood consumption when possible to avoid microplastics and support sustainability.
#8 – Eat More Fresh, Locally-Sourced Foods
As microplastics continue to accumulate in the environment, human exposure to microplastics in food is becoming a significant concern.
According to a 2018 study, consumption of highly processed foods like hamburgers and ice cream may increase exposure to phthalates, a common type of microplastic. Less processing means less exposure to microplastics. Eating more fresh and minimally processed foods reduces the risk of exposure.
Local produce often comes with little to no plastic packaging as well, avoiding contamination from the packaging itself and reducing plastic waste.
The shorter supply chains to bring food from the farm to the table means less handling and processing where microplastics could be introduced.
#9 – Use Natural Makeup
When it comes to makeup, going natural also means going plastic-free.
Many conventional makeup products contain microplastics added for texture, shine, and other effects. Thankfully, natural makeup brands offer plastic-free alternatives by using organic and sustainable ingredients instead of microplastics. These products perform just as well without the potential health and environmental risks.
Similar to food, natural makeup brands usually prioritize sustainable practices such as using recycled packaging. Supporting these brands means supporting their efforts to reduce plastic waste.
Empowering yourself through education is key. Read through ingredient lists and look for terms like “polyethylene”, “acrylates polymers”, and others to identify products with microplastics.
#10 – Vacuum Regularly
Tiny plastic particles are present in many households and can be inhaled. Regular vacuuming can help remove microplastics and reduce buildup of these particles on floors and surfaces.
Some vacuum cleaners now include advanced HEPA filters that effectively capture microplastics during cleaning.
HEPA, or “high efficiency particulate air [filter]” as defined by the U.S. Dept. of Energy, can theoretically capture at least 99.97% of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria, and any airborne particles as small as 0.3 microns (µm), according to this article.
The diameter specification of 0.3 microns corresponds to the most penetrating particle size (MPPS) that HEPA filters are tested against to ensure thorough filtration. These air filters present an accessible and effective solution to reduce concentrations of microplastics and improve indoor air quality.
With better indoor air quality, we can breathe easier knowing that the air in our homes has less exposure to potentially harmful microplastics.
#11 – Use Public Transportation
Cars are largely made with plastic materials, and as a result of the friction from using them regularly, microplastics shed off and wash out to the sea or get caught up in the wind.
In a recent study, researchers show how microplastics from cars, specifically tire wear particles and brake wear particles, travel from densely populated and largely urbanized areas into remote regions and the environment—from the cities of Europe, Asia, and the Americas and into the Arctic, Greenland, and the world’s oceans. They calculated that over 50,000 tons of microplastics from tires and brakes enter oceans yearly, with 20,000 tons reaching remote icy regions.
Individuals using public transit more often can help decrease emissions from private vehicles. This benefits not only our own cities but other parts of the world impacted as well.
The reality is that microplastics have become ubiquitous—they’ are’re making their way into our bodies, our homes, our food, and our environment at alarming rates. While more research is still needed to fully quantify health risks, early evidence suggests we should limit exposure wherever possible as a precaution.
The good news is that we have power through the choices we make each day.
Small lifestyle changes to reduce reliance on plastics can minimize personal microplastic intake. Choosing natural products, washing synthetic clothes less, filtering tap water, and using reusable alternatives over single-use plastics protects our own health as well as entire ecosystems.