What Are Microplastics?

Inspire Clean Energy

15 min read

category: Clean Energy 101

What are microplastics and why are they a problem?

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic found in lakes, rivers, and oceans that slowly have become a massive problem for marine environments, aquatic life and other ecosystems.

Marine life often mistakes microplastics as food (think: kelp or shrimp), and then toxic chemicals get dispersed into their bloodstreams, muscle and skin tissue when they ingest the plastic. The more they feed on the microplastics, the more concentrated these chemicals become in their blood cells and tissues. When one marine animal ingests another, say a seal eating a fish, then the seal will take on those toxic chemicals as well. A ripple effect is created throughout the entire food chain and brings harmful consequences to every marine animal in the ecosystem. The ripple effect goes beyond the marine ecosystem, as fish and seafood can make up a significant portion of a human's diet. As humans consume fish and seafood, those toxic chemicals in microplastics will eventually make it into our bodies.

Ultimately, people are concerned about microplastics because they are not biodegradable. Once they enter into an ecosystem, they can and will have some long-term and foreseeable future effects. With something that has such a long-reaching influence, we must understand the potential negative consequences such as neurological and reproductive toxicity, which can have a long-lasting effect that scientists are only beginning to understand.

What are microplastics found in?

Microplastics can end up in drinking water, food products, beer and table salt, to name a few. Scientists have now begun to detect microplastics in human tissue and organs, which happens through drinking water and food products that contain them.

But where do microplastics originate? Plastic waste. Many of the everyday products we use, like water bottles, food packaging, furniture, cooking and eating utensils, are made from plastic. It's become abundant in everything we use and consume. When plastic ends up in a landfill or is discarded improperly as litter, the plastics eventually become brittle and break down from sun exposure and other elements. When these larger plastic items break down into their smallest form, they can usually be found in pieces smaller than 5-millimeters in length, becoming a microplastic. Once in the microplastic stage, they can quickly move around the environment through the air, waterways, and food chains.

Another form of microplastics is intentionally created to act as additives in many cosmetic and personal care products. These are often referred to as microbeads. Microbeads are found in shampoos, toothpaste, face washes, and cosmetic products like lipsticks. When we use these products, these microbeads end up in our sinks and showers and are washed away into our water and sewage systems. Since they never fully decompose, they will eventually find their way into our lakes, rivers and oceans. Many companies have become aware of how microbeads can harm the environment and have pledged to use alternatives, but many products still use microbeads today.

What are examples of microplastics?

As mentioned before, the breakdown of some of the larger plastic products we use comes from our everyday products. They also can come in the form of microbeads or plastic fibers used in synthetic textiles. Synthetic threads often are used in clothing that contains nylon, acrylic, and polyester. The larger plastic items we use like straws, grocery bags, and water bottles make up a large portion of the plastic waste that can eventually deteriorate into microplastics. Although they can decline to small pieces, they never quite decompose, and they remain in our environment for hundreds of years.

Are microplastics harmful to humans?

Although little is known about microplastics' harmful effects on humans, some evidence suggests microplastic exposure leads to negative health consequences. When humans are exposed to microplastics, either through ingestion, inhalation, or contact with their skin, some evidence suggests that some level of toxicity occurs. Toxicity from microplastics can lead to metabolic disturbances, neurotoxicity, and an increased risk of cancer. The toxicity can occur from oxidative stress, inflammatory lesions, and/or translocation. Additionally, microplastics can act as an absorbent when it comes into contact with other chemical compounds. Therefore whatever other toxic chemicals the plastic has been exposed to could potentially end up in the human body through consumer products, food and drinking water, and through the air we breathe.

What happens if you eat microplastics?

Microplastics have been found in many of the food products we consume daily, especially in our seafood. Some research has shown up to 300 microplastic fibers per pound of honey and 109 microplastic fragments per liter of beer. Additionally, even higher concentrations are in our seafood supply. For example, mussels and oysters harvested for human consumption found nearly 0.47 microplastic particles per gram. So, with all this evidence of microplastics in our food, what happens when you eat microplastics?

Essentially, when you ingest microplastics, the chemicals that comprise the particles can enter into the bloodstream and spread to the liver, kidneys, intestines and even the brain. The effects of this exposure to these chemicals in these vital organs are still being studied. However, there is some evidence that these chemicals can create oxidative stress molecules in these organs. Chemicals like phthalates, which are used to give plastic flexibility, have been linked to increased growth in breast cancer cells in a laboratory setting. Bisphenol A, common in plastic packaging and food storage containers, has shown that it can interfere with reproductive hormones.

Do microplastics stay in the body?

Yes, microplastics do stay in the body after being consumed. They either break down slowly over a long period, or they never break down, and they remain in our bodies long after we have passed away.

Where are microplastics found?

Microplastics are in the food we eat, the water we drink, and even the air we breathe. Microplastics come from the plastic items we use daily, like water bottles, plastic straws, and plastic grocery bags. There has been mounting evidence that the amount of microplastics in our lakes, rivers, and oceans continues to increase and that their presence can bring potential harm to the environment.

How long do microplastics last?

Microplastics, unfortunately, do not easily break down or decompose. It's estimated that the average microplastic can take anywhere from 450 to 1,000 years to decompose fully.

What percent of the plastic in the ocean are microplastics?

After new research conducted by the Commonwealth Industrial and Scientific Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency, researchers believe there may be 14.4 million tons of microplastics at the bottom of the ocean. This enormous figure is more than 25 times larger than what was previously thought. It has been noted that there is more than twice the amount of microplastics in the sea floor’s sediment than on the surface of the ocean.

What is the biggest source of microplastics?

Most studies support that the biggest source of microplastics is car tires. Other primary sources of microplastics include synthetic textiles, marine coatings, road markings, personal care products, city dust, plastic pellets and more.

Can we get rid of microplastics?

There are ways to reduce the production of microplastics in everyday life. Implementing reusable water bottles, food dishes and shopping bags into your routine will help eliminate single-use plastics from day-to-day. Using public transportation will also reduce the number of microplastics caused by tire disintegration. In avoiding plastic, you are doing your part to eliminate harmful microplastics in the environment.

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What are the different types of microplastics?

Microplastics are divided into two main categories: primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are those that have been purposefully developed and freely added or those that have been released unintentionally as a result of a process. These include microbeads designed for a specific purpose, such as cleaning products or personal care items. 

Secondary microplastics are not made by design but are instead the product of larger pieces of plastic breaking down and fracturing into secondary sources. Any plastic object in a stream can be fragmented by environmental variables, including animal digestion, waves, and such. Many biodegradable plastics will break down into microplastics rather than totally disappear.

Take a look at the five common types of microplastics, including both primary and secondary forms. 


Microbeads are primary non-biodegradable plastic particles smaller than 1 mm. For example, cleansers, exfoliating soaps, and toothpaste include microbeads. Due to their size, microbeads can get into water systems. For example, a toothpaste tube can contain 300,000 microbeads, which fish and aquatic species may mistake for food. As a result, plastic clogs the intestines, causing starvation and death.


Pellets are also a primary form used to make plastic products. Companies melt them down to make plastic goods like container lids. Due to their size, pellets sometimes spill from delivery vehicles, especially trains. In addition, storms and rain wash pellets into storm drains. Like microbeads, fish can mistake pellets for food.


Styrofoam is used for containers, cups, and packing and crumbles into shards that are not recycled. In addition, leaking Styrofoam chemicals can contaminate food and drink, especially when heated. While most foam starts as a primary microplastic, it soon breaks down into a secondary source.


Fibers are secondary forms of microplastics left over from larger pieces of plastic. Microfiber sources include fleece, diapers, and cigarette butts. They infiltrate lakes through our washing machines.


Fragments are secondary forms of microplastic broken down into chunks of plastic. Single-use items include cutlery and lids. Sunlight's UV rays shatter these fragments, further causing damage and endangering habitats and wildlife.

Can you avoid consuming microplastics?

Humans have manufactured 8.3 billion tons of plastic since the 1950s, with 79 percent ending up in dumps, landfills, the environment, and our food. Plastic is so strong and hard to break down that it can not decay in nature, and no organism can break down plastic—but it can be fragmented into microplastics. Microplastic compounds cause developmental, reproductive, and hormonal disorders in humans. Here are some ways to reduce plastic in your food.

Avoid Microwaving Plastic

The microwave makes life easier but can cause irreparable harm. BPA and phthalates added to plastic leach more quickly when heated. This includes storage containers, takeout cartons, lids, and microwaveable frozen meals. Transfer food to ceramic or glass containers or store lunch plates at work. 

Additionally, heat dissolves plastic, so do not wash plastic in the dishwasher. 

Stop Using Single-Use Items

Paper takeout cups release microplastics when exposed to hot liquids, like plastic containers. Your disposable coffee cup adds to your everyday microplastic consumption. Most of these paper cups are lined with supposedly safe HDPE plastic, which leaks estrogenic compounds, and some contain heavy metals. Invest in a stainless steel or glass reusable coffee cup.

Furthermore, when a plastic tea bag is brewed, it releases 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nanoplastics. Even teabags marketed as paper are commonly bonded with polypropylene, a form of plastic. Instead, try loose leaf tea and reusable linen tea bags or tea balls and drink tea at home.

It’s also time to give up bottled water, which has approximately twice the quantity of microplastics as tap water. Instead of reaching for a new plastic bottle every day, fill a reusable glass, stainless steel, or silicone bottle with tap water. Many of these bottles are also designed to keep drinks cold for a long time and have a long shelf life.

Bypass the Worst Plastics

All plastic is dangerous, but products with recycling codes 3, 6, and 7 contain phthalates, styrene, and bisphenols (unless branded "greenware" or "bio-based") and are difficult to recycle. Compare recycling codes on grocery store packages and choose wisely; if possible, choose glass, silicone, or aluminum instead.

Watch Your Soaps

Even body wash and toothpaste contain microplastics. Plastic-laden products contain harmful substances. Search for fragrance-free or phthalate-free labels when buying face wash, toothpaste, and other scented products.

Clean Smart

Microplastics enter our systems when we eat, drink, and breathe. These tiny plastic bits are typically found under mattresses, in corners, and in the air. Regular cleaning and vacuuming helps prevent the inhalation of microplastics. However, small particles will blow out of a vacuum without a HEPA filter. Also, choose cleaning supplies in glass or metal containers to avoid washing your counters with microplastics.

Are microplastics invisible?

Sadly, microplastics are invisible, as they can be as small as nanoplastic—small enough to fit millions into one soccer ball. Everyone consumes and breathes sand and dust, and it is unclear if an additional diet of plastic flecks will be harmful. 

One thing is certain, we will not be able to prevent plastics from entering our bodies. Microplastics have been found in nearly all drinking water samples taken worldwide. They are also detected in human tissues and organs, according to scientists. However, the long-term consequences and health risks of discovering these little pieces of plastic inside the human body are still unknown.

Which foods contain microplastics?

Seafood may have the most microplastics. Microplastics have been found in 386 aquatic species, more than half of which are economically exploited. The problem is expected to worsen as ocean plastic pollution increases. Microplastics and nanoplastics move from fish stomachs into their muscle tissue, which humans eat.

Wildlife and farm animals now eat plastic. Microplastics are not simply ingested through eating meat but can also be found in carrots, lettuce, pears, and apples, with up to 195,500 plastic particles per gram. According to a study from the University of Catania in Italy, microplastics can permeate seed, root, culm, leaf, and fruit plant cells. Furthermore, most water includes microplastics; thus, most beer does, as do many other drinks.

Salt also contains microplastics of up to 20 percent. A study by Incheon National University, South Korea, and Greenpeace East Asia discovered microplastics in 90 percent of 39 salt brands from 21 nations. Microplastic-contaminated salt is still sold in supermarkets and online. According to an international study, humans may consume 20,000 microplastic particles a year with 10 grams of daily salt.

Are there microplastics in tap water?

Unfortunately, tap water does contain microplastics. According to TAPP Water, microplastics can be found in up to 94 percent of American tap water, but they can be filtered out. Purchase a drinking water filter, such as a carbon block or distillation filter, which has been proven to filter out 100% of known microplastics. It’s important to note, however, that tap water still has about half the microplastics of bottled water. 

Which clothes produce microplastics?

Synthetic fibers make up 60 percent of all clothes, and most synthetic fibers are a variation of plastic. Each item created from these materials emits hundreds of thousands of microplastics per wash, with acrylic textiles producing more than 700,000 per cycle. About 35 percent of ocean microplastics come from synthetic fabrics. Plastic clothing includes nylon, rayon, polyester, spandex, acrylic, and acetate. Instead, choose wool, silk, and hemp items.

Most laundry detergents, spray, fabric softeners, and scented booster beads also contain microplastics, but some products assist in preventing the discharge of microplastics in the laundry. 

Which countries produce the most plastic pollution?

According to previous studies, Asian countries, particularly those with coastal communities, are the largest polluters of plastic, with China, Indonesia, and Vietnam among the worst offenders. However, the United States and the United Kingdom produce the most plastic waste per person of any large country. Other top contenders include India and Germany. 

How do you reduce microplastic creation in your day-to-day life?

We can limit our consumption and impact now that we understand microplastics, microbeads, and microfibers and how they affect the planet and our health. Here are a few tips to help reduce microplastics in your life:

  • Stop buying bottled water and buy a water filter. Most 2-micron carbon block filters remove microplastics.
  • Buy eco-friendly, non-synthetic garments.
  • Use laundry balls and eco-friendly laundry soap.
  • Do not use hot water or high heat cycles on washers or dryers.
  • Use public transportation and rail infrastructure. 
  • Eat less meat, seafood, and individual serving foods.
  • Stop using to-go cups or containers
  • Buy plastic-free cosmetics, shampoos, conditioners, and other personal care items.
  • Use reusable shopping bags instead of plastic. 
  • Buy in bulk to use less plastic.

Is it possible to remove microplastics from the ocean?

Plastic never entirely dissolves, and the ocean is becoming increasingly contaminated with microplastics, which are small enough to penetrate the bodies of both marine life and humans. However, scientists are finding new and inventive ways to reduce microplastics in oceans, such as with magnets, bacteria, membrane technology, and even mussel waste!

The best method of removing microplastics from the water is through less use of plastics. However, all the new methods are still in their infancy and will take a while to become an economical and widespread option for removing plastics from water. As of now, these options still have many hurdles to overcome.

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