Microplastics are very small plastics that are typically found in oceans and other marine ecosystems. Because of their small size and toxicity, it is important to know more about them and what we can do to help.
What are microplastics?
Above: Microplastics, image courtesy of The Source Magazine
Microplastics are plastics that are very small in size, typically less than 5 millimeters (0.2 inches) long. There are 2 different ways that microplastics can be created. These processes are primary and secondary. Primary microplastics are those that are intentionally made that size. An example of a primary microplastic are microbeads. Microbeads are typically found in health and beauty products including facial cleansers and toothpastes as abrasive agents, however in 2015 a federal ban was enacted upon them so no items would contain microbeads beginning in 2017. Secondary microplastics are derived from the fragmentation of larger solid plastics such as cups, bottles, and containers. This breakdown happens due to mainly the sun’s radiation and ocean waves.
You might be wondering what the big deal is with microplastics. Well, these minute pieces of plastic can be found in our oceans and impact marine ecosystems. These small particles are oftentimes ingested by marine life and have even been found in stomachs of fish. These plastics typically contain toxic chemicals that are detrimental to marine life. Microplastics have even been found in drinking water because they are unable to be filtered out using current filtration systems.
How are we contributing to the problem?
Above: Microplastics and marine life, image courtesy of phys.org
There are many single-use plastics that many humans have become very reliant on or accustomed to. These include, but are not limited to, bottles, cups, straws, and bags. Most of these items can be recycled, however it can be more difficult to recycle some than others. This can lead to people throwing plastics in the trash, which can find their way into the ocean through different mechanisms of transportation. Littering is another way that plastics can find their way into oceans.
Microplastics can also come from synthetic materials, such as nylon and polyester. When we wash our clothes that are composed of synthetics fabrics, these particles can detach from clothing when washed and since they are so small machine filters cannot catch them. These microplastics then find their way into different waterways including rivers and streams before ultimately ending up in the ocean.
How can I help?
Above: Trex Plastic Film Challenge bench that was earned after collecting over 500 pounds of plastic
There are many ways to help prevent plastic and microplastics from ending up in our oceans. One thing that we can do is make the swap from single-use to reusable. Investing in a good reusable water bottle or tumbler can also save you money in the long run. By eliminating plastic water bottles, you can potentially save hundreds of dollars annually. When it comes to avoiding plastic straws, there are plenty of reusable straw options that are very handy and convenient. Some of these options include glass, metal, and silicon. To eliminate the usage of plastic bags, there are plenty of options that can meet your needs from reusable shopping bags to sandwich/snack bags. These bags can be made from a variety of materials including silicon and even do it yourself bags made from old t-shirts.
It is also important to be mindful of the products that we purchase. Do your research on products and vendors to see if they contain or use plastic. Some vendors use plastic free packaging or offer options where you can request plastic-free or plastic minimal packaging. Some vendors even donate percentages of their sales to advocate for cleaner oceans. This can take the form of political advocacy and ocean cleanup events. Also take note of what materials your products are made of. When possible, always choose to buy items like clothing that are comprised of 100% natural fibers like cotton and wool rather than mixed-blend fabrics.
Residence Life Initiatives
Above: Fill-It-Forward campaign barcode sticker
Here in Residence Life, we have already begun to take steps to reduce the reliance on plastic bottles. Since 2013, we had water bottle filling stations installed throughout the residence halls, some of which have been funded by Aggie Green Fund. Stations are found on every floor of our residence halls and provide ready access to cold, filtered water to our residents. This access reduces the need for residents to purchase single-use water bottles which positively impacts the environment by reducing waste generated and saves residents money they can put towards other necessary expenses.
In the fall of 2018, we began the Trex plastic film challenge in partnership with the Virginia-based composite-decking company Trex. Through this program we accept clean plastic films, such as Ziploc bags and grocery bags, at collection stations throughout campus. The goal is to collect 500 pounds of film within 6 months, and earn a bench made from recycled plastics. Since November 2018, we have hosted 2 Trex Challenges resulting in over 1,700 lbs. of plastic film being recycled and other departments on campus have begun to host their own challenges.
Our most recent initiative to reduce single-use plastics is the Fill It Forward campaign. This campaign uses branded stickers with barcodes that can then be scanned using the Fill It Forward app. The app tracks total bottle reuses, ounces of plastic saved from the ocean, waste diverted from the landfill, power saved from production, and pounds of CO2 emissions reduced. In addition to these environmental impacts, Fill It Forward helps fund different water projects worldwide with their 5 water charity partners. Some of the projects that have been funded are rainwater cisterns in New Mexico, sanitization stations in India, funds protecting freshwater springs in Uganda, and a tap stand for a community in Madagascar.
We have outlined above several department resources that word to reduce microplastics. However, there are many other ways that you can have an impact.