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How and Why Microplastics Invade Our Everyday Lives

The abundance of single-​use plastic items such as water bottles, grocery bags, and packaging materials has soared since the 1950s. These objects break down into microplastics, or tiny bits of plastic less than 5 millimeters long (less than half the width of your pinky fingernail), which are now ubiquitous.

No one knows exactly how much microplastic has made it into the environment, but in 2021, an international team of multidisciplinary scientists estimated that there were 24.4 trillion pieces of microplastics in the world’s upper oceans alone, or the equivalent of roughly 30 billion plastic water bottles.

Because of their minute size, microplastics aren’t easy to track. For many years, researchers assumed these tiny bits of trash entered rivers, where they were carried downstream to the ocean in a relatively short amount of time. But that’s not actually the case. According to a new study published in Science Advances, it’s estimated that microplastics may remain in rivers for more than 300 years before entering the ocean. This means the microplastics in rivers have much greater potential to cause harm to humans and the environment than scientists previously thought.

microplastics

Organizations like the Ocean Cleanup use nets (above) to capture large pieces of trash, but microplastics often slip through. Data from a 2016 study by the United States Geological Survey found that fibers made up as much as 71 percent of microplastics that flow into the Great Lakes.

Courtesy of Ocean Cleanup/ Eleni Dimou

Microplastics enter rivers in a number of ways, says Lisa Erdle, Ph.D., a microplastics expert and the director of science and innovation for The 5 Gyres Institute, a U.S.-based nonprofit research group focused on plastic pollution. For example, tire particles and other roadway waste can wash into rivers during a storm. In some cases, poorly filtered plastic manufacturing waste is dumped directly into a river. But researchers see one type of microplastic more often than others, Erdle says: microfibers, or threads shed by things like upholstery and clothing. “We wear a lot of plastic, especially fast fashion,” Erdle says, referring to materials like polyester and nylon used to make inexpensive clothing that often doesn’t hold up well after a short time of regular wear or washing.


Fighting Fibers

Tiny threads from synthetic clothing and textiles are one of the most common types of microplastics. In addition to buying natural-fiber clothing, here’s how you can limit the amount of microfibers you contribute to the environment via your washing machine.

🧼 Wash Like Items Together

Washing items made from similar materials together keeps thread-unraveling friction to
a minimum.

🚰 Going Cold

Washing in cold water and using a shorter cycle can extend the life of your favorite pair of jeans and limit microfiber shedding by as much as 30 percent, per a 2020 study. Swapping out your dryer for a clothesline helps, too.

🥅 Trap it Early

There are several products designed to prevent fibers from entering waterways, including tightly woven mesh bags (Guppyfriend has one for $35) that trap threads, and specialized filters for your washing machine’s discharge hose.


Experts have long assumed that once microplastics entered a river, it would be only days or even hours before they were dumped into the ocean. But research from Jennifer Drummond, Ph.D., a research fellow at the University of Birmingham in the U.K., and her colleagues suggests there is significant plastic retention in rivers. Because of turbulence and water mixing beneath the surface, called hyporheic exchange, microplastics don’t just float on the surface or sink to the bottom. Instead, they move dynamically down the river at a rate as slow as seven years per kilometer (11.2 years per mile). Simply put, “rivers aren’t pipes,” Drummond says.

Although these granules of waste aren’t likely to plug up rivers or clog our intestines when consumed, microplastics can still do harm. “Plastics contain hundreds of different chemicals added to them when they’re produced,” says Alice Horton, Ph.D., a research scientist and microplastics expert at the National Oceanography Centre, an oceanographic research institute based in the U.K. Bacteria and viruses can also attach to microplastics that may later be consumed by humans and wildlife, says Drummond.

There are a handful of efforts to clean up river plastic pollution, including Baltimore’s solar- and hydro-powered Mr. Trash Wheel. Installed in 2014, the semi-autonomous floating machine funnels trash into its “mouth” with two long booms, then rakes the materials onto a conveyer-belt “tongue” that drops the waste into a dumpster. While such machines have collected several thousand tons of trash debris that otherwise would have entered the ocean—Mr. Trash Wheel has pulled more than 1,760 tons of trash out of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor—experts say that amount is barely scratching the surface, partially because the majority of microplastics pass right through their filters.

The only way to clean up microplastics, and really all plastic, is to stop them from entering into the environment in the first place, experts say. This means using less plastic, coming up with better disposal methods, and designing products that can be more readily recycled and reused.

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