10 Simple Ways to Avoid Microplastics in Your Everyday Life
More than 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced by humans since the 1950s, 79% of which has landed up in dumps, landfills, and the natural environment. Scientists warn that if our patterns of plastic production and disposal continue, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish as soon as 2050.
Plastic is so durable and difficult to break down – which is exactly what makes it so useful to us – that it’s practically impossible for it to degrade in the natural environment. No organism can naturally break down the chemical bonds in plastic, so every plastic item that isn’t recycled merely breaks into smaller and smaller pieces over the course of its lifetime. These resulting miniscule pieces (less than 5 millimeters each) are called microplastics, and can be found virtually everywhere; oceans, soils, human organs, the guts of fish and insects, and floating through the air. Even in the Marina Trench – the deepest part of the ocean – animals are consuming microplastics.
The chemicals in microplastics have a variety of health consequences for humans, including developmental, reproductive, and hormonal problems. BPA and phthalates are among the most common; these endocrine-disrupters can interfere with fetal development and cause hormone-related cancers. Low estimates of how much plastic the average human consumes each year hover around 50,000 pieces of plastic, but could be as high as 120,000 pieces of plastic.
While some larger-scale steps have been taken to limit microplastics – such as the microbead ban implemented in 2015 for rinse-off body products – simple steps can be taken to cut down on exposure to microbeads in your daily life, and keep them from entering the natural environment.
1. Don’t microwave food in plastic.
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A 2019 study found that the plastic ingested every week by the average person is roughly equal to that of a credit card – much of which comes from the food and water we consume every day.
While it might be tempting to microwave leftovers or takeout right in the container, the BPA and phthalates added to plastic leach much more easily when heated. This includes plastic Tupperware, takeout boxes, lids, and pre-made, frozen meals that get microwaved right in the package.
Transfer food to a ceramic or glass container instead, or keep a few dishes at the office to use at lunchtime. Take care not to wash plastic containers in the dishwasher too, as the heated water degrades the plastic.
2. Drink (filtered) tap water.
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It’s time to ditch bottled water, which, according to a 2018 study, has roughly double the amount of microplastics as tap water. Instead of reaching for a new plastic bottle every day, fill up a reusable glass, stainless steel, or silicone bottle with tap water. Many of these bottles are also designed to keep drinks cold, and last for many years.
Unfortunately, tap water isn’t perfect either. The Spanish company Tapp Water states that microplastics are in as much as 94% of American tap water, but can be filtered out. Purchase a water filter for your drinking water, such as a carbon block or distillation filter, which are both proven to filter out 100% of known microplastics.
3. Cut out takeaway cups.
Similar to food in a plastic takeout container, paper takeaway cups also release microplastics when exposed to hot liquids. That means your morning cup of hot coffee taken in a disposable cup is adding to your personal microplastic consumption – perhaps on a daily basis. The lining in most of these paper cups are made with HDPE grade plastic – which is considered “safe,” but has been shown to leak estrogenic chemicals – and some even contain heavy metals.
Invest in a stainless steel or glass reusable coffee cup to use at your favorite coffee shop. Bringing your own mug also cuts down on waste, and many cafes offer discounts to customers who opt for a reusable.
4. Avoid extra-harmful plastics (3, 6, 7).
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While all plastic is harmful, products with recycling codes 3, 6, and 7 are even more damaging than others, and are known for containing phthalates, styrene, and bisphenols respectively (unless they’re labeled as “greenware” or “biobased,” in which case they’re considered safer). Plastics 3 and 7 are also much harder to recycle.
Avoid these plastics when possible – especially when it comes to food. Compare recycling codes on the bottom of packaged products at the grocery store and make an informed decision about which to choose. And, instead of storing leftovers in plastic containers with these codes, opt instead for glass, silicone, or aluminum foil. Of course, harmful chemicals exist in other types of plastic as well, so it’s best to avoid all of it, if possible.
Scientists especially warn parents of young children to avoid these types of plastic, as kids are prone to putting soft plastic in their mouths.
5. Change your laundry routine.
Switching up your laundry routine can significantly reduce the number of microplastics making their way into the natural environment from your home.
Sixty percent of all clothing material is now made up of nylon, polyester, acrylic, and other synthetic fibers. These fabrics are popular for their versatility, affordability and durability that offers protection in cold-weather clothes and breathability in athletic wear; yet, each item made from these materials releases hundreds of thousands of microplastics per wash, with acrylic fabrics releasing more than 700,000 every cycle. A 2017 report found that a whopping 35% of all microplastics that enter the ocean come from synthetic fabrics.
Besides avoiding synthetic fibers in your clothing and opting for natural materials like wool, silk, and hemp – and generally consuming less clothing, as even organic cotton clothing has an environmental toll – some products also help limit the release of microplastics in the laundry.
Installing a fiber-catching filter in your laundry machine will keep microplastics from washing out with the spent water. External microfiber filters vary in price and size, and can reduce the amount of fibers in wastewater by 80%. However, if you share laundry facilities in an apartment building or use a laundromat, installing a filter might not be an option for you. Instead, invest in a microfiber laundry bag – like the popular Guppyfriend bag – which is made from a fabric similar to fishing line that doesn’t disintegrate when washed. The bags trap microplastics to keep them from washing away with the wastewater.
Alternatively, laundry balls like the Cora Ball keeps microfibers from breaking off of clothes in the first place, and collects those that do so they can be properly disposed of. Both are simple, affordable options for those without their own private laundry facilities, or washing machines that can’t accommodate a filter.
Air-drying clothes also reduces microplastic production. Lint filters are already installed in most conventional dryers, but the tumbling action might reduce the strength of fibers so more shedding occurs in the wash next time. Stretch a clothesline in your yard or laundry room, or use a travel clothesline or drying rack if you’re tight on space.
6. Use plastic-free cosmetics and microbead-free beauty products.
Microplastics are even present in the products we use to wash our bodies and brush our teeth. Some lotions use plastic to promote absorption, as do many toothpastes and facial/body scrubs.
The use of microbeads – visible plastic particles usually used for exfoliation – in rinse-off cosmetics was banned in 2015, but companies have found ways around the rule. Look at the ingredients lists on products to makes sure that plastic isn’t included, including terms synonymous with plastic like “acrylate copolymer,” among others. Opt instead for microbead and plastic-free options, or natural products with biodegradable alternatives to microbeads.
Harmful chemicals also exist in these plastic-laden products. Body products with fragrance often have phthalates, so look for products that say “fragrance-free” (not merely “unscented) or “phthalate-free” when purchasing face wash, toothpaste, and other frequently-scented items. Check the Environmental Working Group’s list of phthalate-free products before heading to the store, or use Beat the Microbead’s product search tool.
7. Limit seafood consumption.
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We’ve all seen the image of a fish with its stomach sliced open, displaying a pile of colorful plastics that it has ingested over time, forcing us to confront the fact that what they eat, we eat.
Microplastics have been found in 386 aquatic species, more than half of which are used commercially; and, as ocean plastic pollution grows, the situation is expected to worsen. Evidence suggests that microplastics and nanoplastics – which are even smaller – can move from the stomach of fish into their muscle tissue, which is what humans typically eat.
Avoiding seafood is an important step to limiting the microplastics we ingest. Switching to a vegan diet also cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions, and is considered to be one of the most environmentally beneficial lifestyle choices one can make. Abandoned fishing gear like nets and ropes – called “ghost fishing gear” – represents about 10% of all trash in the ocean, so avoiding fish also keeps plastic out of the ocean as well as out of our bodies.
8. Replace tea bags with loose-leaf tea.
One recent study found that, when a plastic tea bag was brewed, 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nanoplastics were released into the drink. Most teabags are made up of roughly 25% plastic, and even those marketed as paper are usually glued together with polypropylene, which is a type of plastic.
Try replacing tea bags with loose leaf tea, and using reusable, refillable linen tea bags or tea balls for steeping. Consider making your own homemade tea as well.
9. Dust and vacuum regularly.
These miniscule plastic pieces are so small, they’re often mixed up in the dust under our beds, in household corners, and floating in the air. Regular dusting and vacuuming can keep these microplastics from accumulating and becoming inhaled by household inhabitants. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter to clean; otherwise the small particles just blow out the other end instead of getting trapped inside.
These measures are especially important if there are babies or young children crawling around at home.
10. Support policies that seek to limit single-use plastics.
We can limit our own use and exposure to microplastics, but large-scale solutions are needed to truly combat plastic pollution. Fight for a more transparent system from the EPA – who has control over the chemicals allowed in plastic – and use your vote to put politicians in office that will prioritize the health of their citizens and actually address the plastic pollution crisis.
Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Along with her most recent position at Hunger Free America, she has interned with the Sierra Club in Washington, DC., Saratoga Living Magazine, and Philadelphia’s NPR Member Station, WHYY.