What’s going on?
Pieces of plastic that are smaller than 5 millimeters, about the width of a pencil eraser, are called microplastics. There are three different kinds of microplastics.
- Primary microplastics: Plastics that are purposely made to be small, like resin pellets and microbeads. Resin pellets are made to be melted down to make bigger pieces of plastic and microbeads are found in a lot of personal care products like face wash and toothpaste.
- Secondary microplastics: Come from larger pieces of plastic being broken up into smaller pieces in the environment.
- Plastic microfibers: Come from synthetic fibers like polyester or nylon that are used in clothing, furniture, and fishing equipment.
Whether it be from microbeads in toothpaste and facewash going down the sink or larger pieces of plastic breaking down into smaller pieces, microplastics are entering Florida’s oceans and waterways in large numbers. A 2019 study by USF St. Petersburg and Eckerd College estimated that Tampa Bay contains four billion microplastic particles.
Because these plastics are similar in size to plankton, animals like oysters, fish, and birds eat them, allowing the particles to enter and pass through the food chain. Large filter-feeding animals like whales also inadvertently ingest microplastics in large quantities when eating.
Why it matters.
Since they are a type of plastic pollution, microplastics do not break down easily and stay in the environment for a very long time. Additionally, microplastics are great at absorbing toxic chemicals and carrying them from place to place. They can leach these chemicals into the environment or continue to accumulate them from the seawater. When animals ingest microplastics, it can result in cell damage, disruptions in their reproductive processes, and death.
But the damage of microplastics does not stop there. Because animals that are lower on the food chain are ingesting them, microplastics are making their way up the food chain and eventually into humans.
In 2022, a study published in the journal Environment International found that 80% of its participants had plastic particles in their blood, some with three different kinds of plastic. Researchers do not yet know how long these plastics will stay in our blood and the effect it will have on our bodies and immune systems.
What you can do.
- Participate in beach and waterway clean-ups in your area to help remove plastic from the environment.
- Dispose of your plastic waste properly.
- Reduce the amount of waste you produce, reuse items when you can, and recycle as much as possible.
- Buy and use reusable products like containers, water bottles, and straws instead of disposable items.
- Purchase products without microplastic beads in them. Many toothpastes and face washes contain microbeads, which can get into the water through your sink.
- Wash your laundry less often and opt to buy clothes made of natural fabrics to avoid getting synthetic fibers in the water.
Information from NOAA, UF IFAS, USF Magazine, and WSTP.