Breaking up With Plastic – Part 1

We can’t see them but tiny particles of plastic are everywhere. These particles, generally less than five millimeters in size (think sesame seed) are known as MICROPLASTICS and have been found throughout the world—from the very base of the food chain to the top: US!  

Microplastic is an emerging field of study. Here are the things we should know as we learn more and more about these particles and their potential deleterious effects.

Where do they come from?

A. They originate from a variety of sources, including larger plastic debris, which breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Microbeads, a type of microplastic, were used in health and beauty products, some cleansers, and toothpastes. These have been banned by the FDA but are still in personal care products from other countries. Other sources include fertilizers and the rubber from tires.

What are other sources?

A. Microplastics are released unintentionally when we wash clothes not made 100% from natural fibers. Most of us drape ourselves in plastic. It’s hard to avoid all synthetic fabrics like polyester, nylon, and spandex.   If you collect the lint from your dryer, you are well aware that your clothes shed, and this happens in the washing machine as well. Fibers break off and go down the drain.

Where do they end up?

A. Approximately 95% of microplastics are filtered out at wastewater treatment plants, and that is great! Nevertheless, that other 5% adds up.  A study of 17 treatment plants in the U.S. showed each facility releasing on average more than 4 million microplastic particles into our waterways every day. By the way—we have about 15,000 treatment plants. 

How are they thought to impact the environment?

A. They have the potential to end up anywhere—in our food, water, and body.  

Where else are they found?

A. Microplastics have been found in: air, soil, drinking water, beer, fish, mussels, pigs, chickens, crabs, oysters, plankton, more than 220 animal species, and yes—human feces.

 How much plastic do animals consume and does it harm health?

A. There is still so much to learn, but what is known is that animals are ingesting microplastics, starting with the bottom of the food chain—plankton. There is evidence that ingestion impairs reproduction, growth, mobility, and feeding patterns of small marine animals.

How much plastic do humans consume?

A. Well here’s a statistic we can relate to: One recent study estimated that some people might consume up to 5 grams of plastic a week—or the amount of plastic in a credit card!

Do we need to stop using plastic?

A. No, this is not an article about banning plastic. Plastics serve a lot of necessary purposes and for the moment, we can’t do without it. However, there are many unnecessary plastics we could reduce and ultimately eliminate from our daily lives. It’s a good time to rethink our relationship with plastic.

Next week, look for practical tips to reduce the plastic in your life.

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Ken Davis

Ken Davis is the Co-op's senior copywriter. Email him at