Microplastics are small plastic particles in the environment. While
there is some contention over their size, the U.S. National Oceanic
& Atmospheric Administration classifies microplastics as less than
5 mm in diameter. They come from a variety of sources,
including cosmetics, clothing, and industrial processes.
Two classifications of microplastics currently exist: primary
microplastics are manufactured and are a direct result of human
material and product use, and secondary microplastics are microscopic
plastic fragments derived from the breakdown of larger plastic debris
like the macroscopic parts that make up the bulk of the Great Pacific
Garbage Patch. Both types are recognized to persist in the
environment at high levels, particularly in aquatic and marine
ecosystems. The plastic resin beads created for use by manufactures
are often called nurdles.
Because plastics do not break down for many years, they can be
ingested and incorporated into and accumulated in the bodies and
tissues of many organisms. The entire cycle and movement of
microplastics in the environment is not yet known, but research is
currently underway to investigate this issue.
1.1 Primary microplastics
1.2 Secondary microplastics
1.3 Other sources: as a by-product/dust emission during wear and tear
Wastewater treatment plants (primary treatment)
Sewage treatment plants (secondary treatment)
2.3 Car and truck tires
2.6 Manufactured goods
2.7 Coastal tourism
2.9 Natural calamities
3 Potential impacts on the environment
3.1 Biological integration into organisms
3.2 As a dispersal of biota
3.3 Effects on buoyancy
3.4 Persistent organic pollutants
4 Policy and legislation
5 Action for creating awareness
6 See also
8 Further reading
9 External links
These are particles of plastics that are purposefully manufactured to
be microscopic. They are usually used in facial cleansers and
cosmetics, or in air blasting technology. In some cases, their use in
medicine as vectors for drugs was reported. Microplastic
"scrubbers", used in exfoliating hand cleansers and facial scrubs,
have replaced traditionally used natural ingredients, including ground
almonds, oatmeal and pumice. Primary microplastics have also been
produced for use in air blasting technology. This process involves
blasting acrylic, melamine or polyester microplastic scrubbers at
machinery, engines and boat hulls to remove rust and paint. As these
scrubbers are used repeatedly until they diminish in size and their
cutting power is lost, they often become contaminated with heavy
metals such as cadmium, chromium, and lead.
These are described as microscopic plastic fragments derived from the
breakdown of larger plastic debris, both at sea and on land. Over
time, a culmination of physical, biological and chemical processes can
reduce the structural integrity of plastic debris, resulting in
fragmentation. It is considered that microplastics might further
degrade to be smaller in size, although the smallest microparticle
reportedly detected in the oceans at present is 1.6 micrometres
(6.3×10−5 in) in diameter. The prevalence of microplastics
with uneven shapes suggests that fragmentation is a key source.
Other sources: as a by-product/dust emission during wear and
Examples of these include dust from car and truck tires,synthetic
textiles, ropes, paint and waste treatment. These sources of
microplastics are quite recently recognized and are somewhere between
primary and secondary microplastics. A Norwegian Environment Agency
review report about microplastics published in early 2015 states it
would be beneficial to classify these sources as primary, as long as
microplastics from these sources are added from human society at the
"start of the pipe", and their emissions are inherently a result of
human material and product use and not secondary defragmentation in
Polystyrene foam beads on an Irish beach
The existence of microplastics in the environment is often proved via
aquatic-related studies. These include taking plankton samples,
analyzing sandy and muddy sediments, observing vertebrate and
invertebrate consumption, and evaluating chemical pollutant
interactions. Through such methods, it has been recognized that
there are a variety of microplastics in the environment from multiple
Microplastics could contribute up to 30% of the 'plastic soup'
polluting the world’s oceans and – in many developed countries –
are a bigger source of marine plastic pollution than the more visible
larger pieces of marine litter, according to a 2017 IUCN report.
Wastewater treatment plants (primary treatment)
Wastewater treatment plants are responsible for the filtration of
wastewater into an effluent. The presence of microplastics, both
primary and secondary, in treatment plants have been confirmed in
various studies. A study done in mid 2016 showed that most
microplastics are actually removed during the primary treatment zone
where solid skimming and sludge settling are used. The
contribution of microplastics into oceans and surface water
environments from wastewater treatment plants are minimal.
Sewage treatment plants (secondary treatment)
Solid waste (including microplastics) that are removed using solid
skimming and sludge settling at primary treatment plants are sent here
for further filtration. A study estimated that about one particle
per liter of microplastics are being released back into the
environment, with a removal efficiency of about 99.9%.
Car and truck tires
Estimates of emissions of microplastics to the environment in Denmark
are between 5,500 and 14,000 tonnes (6,100 and 15,400 tons) per year.
Secondary microplastics (e.g. from car and truck tyres or footwear)
are more important than primary microplastics by two orders of
magnitude. The formation of microplastics from the degradation of
larger plastics in the environment is not accounted for in the
Some companies have replaced natural exfoliating ingredients with
microplastics, usually in the form of "microbeads" or
"micro-exfoliates". These products are typically composed of
polyethylene, a common component of plastics, but they can also be
manufactured from polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, and
nylon. They are often found in face washes, hand soaps, and other
such personal care products, so the beads are usually washed into the
sewage system immediately after use. Their small size prevents them
from fully being retained by preliminary treatment screens at
wastewater plants, thereby allowing some to enter rivers and
Dr Trisia Farrelly, an environmental anthropologist at Massey
University, has called for a ban on glitter made of PET and aluminium,
as it is a microplastic that can break down to hormonal disruptors in
Studies have shown that many synthetic fibers, like polyester,
nylon and acrylics, can be shed from clothing and persist in the
environment. One load of laundry can contain more than 1,900
fibers of microplastics, with fleeces releasing the highest percentage
Washing machine manufacturers have also reviewed
research into whether washing machine filters can reduce the amount of
microfiber fibers that need to be treated by water treatment
The manufacture of plastic products uses granules and small resin
pellets as their raw material. In the United States, production
increased from 2.9 million pellets in 1960 to 21.7 million pellets in
1987. Through accidental spillage during land or sea transport,
inappropriate use as packing materials, and direct outflow from
processing plants, these raw materials can enter aquatic ecosystems.
In an assessment of Swedish waters using an 80 µm mesh, KIMO
Sweden found typical microplastic concentrations of 150–2,400
microplastics per m3; in a harbor adjacent to a plastic production
facility, the concentration was 102,000 per m3.
Recreational and commercial fishing, marine vessels, and marine
industries are all sources of plastic that can directly enter the
marine environment, posing a risk to biota both as macroplastics, and
as secondary microplastics following long-term degradation. Tourism
and recreational activities account for an array of plastics being
discarded along beaches and coastal resorts.
Marine debris observed on
beaches also arises from beaching of materials carried on in-shore and
Fishing gear is one of the most commonly noted plastic
debris items with a marine source. Discarded or lost fishing gear,
including plastic monofilament line and nylon netting, is typically
neutrally buoyant and can therefore drift at variable depths within
Shipping has significantly contributed to marine pollution. Some
statistics indicate that in 1970, commercial shipping fleets around
the world threw over 23,000 tons of plastic waste into the marine
environment. In 1988, an international agreement (
MARPOL 73/78, Annex
V) was implemented and prohibited the dumping of waste from ships into
the marine environment. However, due to non-implementation of the
agreement, shipping remains a dominant source of plastic pollution,
having contributed around 6.5 million tons of plastic in the early
Floods or hurricanes can accelerate transportation of waste from land
to the marine environment. A Californian study revealed that after a
storm, the transport of plastics increased from 10 to 60 microplastics
per m3. The study showed how the waste was transported and deposited
at much greater distances from the river mouth than usual. A similar
study conducted near the southern coast of California showed an
increase of microplastics from 1 to 18 pieces per m3 after a storm.
The abundance and global distribution of microplastics in the oceans
 has steadily increased over the last few decades with rising
plastic consumption worldwide.
Potential impacts on the environment
It has been suggested that this section be split out into another
article titled Environmental impacts of microplastics. (Discuss)
Microplastic particles ingested by a larval perch
The first International Research Workshop on the Occurrence, Effects
and Fate of Microplastic Marine Debris at the University of Washington
Tacoma campus in Tacoma, Washington, USA, from September 9–11, 2008,
agreed that microplastics may pose problems in the marine environment,
based on the following:
the documented occurrence of microplastics in the marine environment,
the long residence times of these particles (and, therefore, their
likely buildup in the future), and
their demonstrated ingestion by marine organisms.
So far, research has mainly focused on larger plastic items. Widely
recognized problems are associated with entanglement, ingestion,
suffocation and general debilitation often leading to death and/or
strandings. This raises serious public concern. In contrast,
microplastics are not as conspicuous, being less than 5 mm.
Particles of this size are available to a much broader range of
species and therefore can cause serious threats.
Biological integration into organisms
Microplastics often become embedded in animals' tissue through
ingestion or respiration. Various annelid species, such as
deposit-feeding lugworms (Arenicola marina), have been shown to have
microplastics embedded in their gastrointestinal tracts. Many
crustaceans, like the shore crab
Carcinus maenas have been seen to
integrate microplastics into both their respiratory and digestive
Additionally, bottom feeders like benthic sea cucumbers, who are
non-selective scavengers that feed on debris on the ocean floor,
ingest large amounts of sediment. It has been shown that four species
of sea cucumber (Thyonella gemmate, Holothuria floridana, H. grisea
and Cucumaria frondosa) ingested between 2- and 20-fold more PVC
fragments and between 2- and 138-fold more nylon line fragments (as
much as 517 fibers per organism) based on plastic to sand grain ratios
from each sediment treatment. These results suggest that individuals
may be selectively ingesting plastic particles. Since this suggestion
opposes the previously determined indiscriminate feeding strategy of
sea cucumbers, this trend may be something which could potentially
occur in all non-selective feeders when presented with
Not only fish and free-living organisms can ingest microplastics.
Scleractinian corals, which are primary reef-builders, have been shown
to ingest microplastics under laboratory conditions. While the
effects of ingestion on these corals has not been studied, corals can
easily become stressed and bleach. It was also noted that
microplastics were present stuck to the exterior of the corals after
exposure in the laboratory. The adherence to the outside of corals
can potentially be harmful, because corals cannot handle sediment or
any particulate matter on their exterior and slough it off by
secreting mucus, and they expend a large amount of energy in the
process, increasing the chances of mortality.
It was found that zooplankton ingest microplastics beads (1.7–30.6
μm) and excrete fecal matter contaminated with microplastics. Along
with ingestion, the microplastics stick to the appendages and
exoskeleton of the zooplankton. Zooplankton, among other marine
organisms, consume microplastics because they emit similar
infochemicals, notably dimethyl sulfide, as phytoplankton and other
organic materials. Plastics such as high-density polyethylene
(HDPE), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), and polypropylene (PP)
produce dimethyl sulfide odors. These types of plastics are
commonly found in plastic bags, bleach, food storage containers, and
It can take at least 14 days for microplastics to pass through an
animal (as compared to a normal digestion periods of 2 days), but
enmeshment of the particles in animals' gills can cause a prolonged
presence. When microplastic-laden animals are consumed by
predators, the microplastics are then incorporated into the bodies of
higher trophic-level feeders. For example, scientists have reported
plastic accumulation in the stomachs of lantern fish which are small
filter feeders and are the main prey for commercial fish like tuna and
Microplastics also absorb chemical pollutants that can
be transferred into the organism's tissues. Furthermore, small
animals are at risk of reduced food intake due to false satiation and
resulting starvation or other physical harm from the microplastics.
As fish is the primary source of protein for nearly one-fifth of the
human population. The microplastics ingested by fish and
crustaceans can be subsequently consumed by humans as the end of the
food chain. In a study done by the State University of New York, 18
fish species were sampled and all species showed some level of
plastics in their systems. Many additional researchers have
found evidence that these fibers had become chemically-associated with
metals, polychlorinated biphenyls, and other toxic contaminants while
in water. The microplastic-metal complex can then enter humans via
consumption. It remains unclear how much of an impact this has
directly on the health of humans, but research on this issue
As a dispersal of biota
Plastic debris has also been shown to serve as carrier for the
dispersal of biota, thus greatly increasing dispersal opportunities in
the oceans, endangering marine biodiversity worldwide. The
dispersal of aggressive alien and invasive species is as much a topic
as the dispersal of cosmopolitan species. By spreading species to
regions that they normally do not inhabit, disruptions in local
ecosystems can occur. The fact that microplastics can negatively
perpetuate the dispersal of biota is notable, especially when policies
and laws are being implemented about the usage of plastic.
Effects on buoyancy
Approximately half of the plastic material introduced to the marine
environment is buoyant, but fouling by organisms can induce the
sinking of additional plastic debris to the sea floor, where it may
interfere with sediment-dwelling species and sedimental gas exchange
processes. Buoyancy changes in relation to ingestion of microplastics
have been clearly observed in autotrophs because the absorption can
interfere with photosynthesis and subsequent gas levels. However,
this issue is of more importance for larger plastic debris.
Persistent organic pollutants
Furthermore, plastic particles may highly concentrate and transport
synthetic organic compounds (e.g. persistent organic pollutants,
POPs), commonly present in the environment and ambient sea water, on
their surface through adsorption. It still remains unknown if
microplastics can act as agents for the transfer of
POPs from the
environment to organisms in this way, but evidence suggest this to
be a potential portal for entering food webs. New data indicate that
microplastics are not important for the bioaccumulation of organic
pollutants in the oceans. Of further concern, additives added
to plastics during manufacture may leach out upon ingestion,
potentially causing serious harm to the organism. Endocrine disruption
by plastic additives may affect the reproductive health of humans and
At current levels, microplastics are unlikely to be an important
global geochemical reservoir for
POPs such as PCBs, dioxins, and DDT
in open oceans. It is not clear, however, if microplastics play a
larger role as chemical reservoirs on smaller scales. A reservoir
function is conceivable in densely populated and polluted areas, such
as bights of mega-cities, areas of intensive agriculture and effluents
Plastics, polymers derived from mineral oils, are virtually
non-biodegradable. However, renewable natural polymers are now in
development which can be used for the production of biodegradable
materials similar to that of oil-based polymers. Their properties in
the environment, however, require detailed scrutiny before their wide
use is propagated.
Policy and legislation
With increasing knowledge of the detrimental effects of microplastics
on the environment, many groups are now advocating for the removal and
ban of microplastics from various products. One of the most prominent
campaigns is the "Beat the Microbead" movement, which focuses on
removing plastics from personal care products. The Adventurers and
Scientists for Conservation are running a
Microplastics Project that
is working to pass a national ban on microbeads in household items and
UNESCO has sponsored research and global assessment
programs due to the trans-boundary issue that microplastic pollution
constitutes. These environmental groups will seemingly keep
pressuring companies to remove plastics from their products in order
to maintain healthy ecosystems.
In the US, some states have taken action to mitigate the negative
environmental effects of microplastics. Illinois was the first U.S.
state to ban cosmetics containing microplastics. On the national
Microbead-Free Waters Act 2015
Microbead-Free Waters Act 2015 was enacted after being
signed by President Barack Obama on December 28, 2015. It is
effective from July 1, 2017 with respect to manufacturing, and July 1,
2018 with respect to introduction or delivery for introduction into
Action for creating awareness
On April 11, 2013 in order to create awareness, artist Maria Cristina
Finucci founded The Garbage patch state under the patronage of
UNESCO and the Italian Ministry of the Environment.
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Plasticized on YouTube
Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene
Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS)
Cross-linked polyethylene (PEX, XLPE)
Ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA)
Poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA)
Polyacrylic acid (PAA)
Polybutylene terephthalate (PBT)
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET, PETE)
Polylactic acid (PLA)
Polyphenyl ether (PPE)
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
Polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC)
Styrene maleic anhydride
Styrene maleic anhydride (SMA)
High performance plastics
Stabilizer for polymers
Plastic shopping bag
Foam food container
Environment and health
Health issues of plastics and polyhalogenated compounds (PHCs)
Bisphenol A (BPA, in Polycarbonates)
Vinyl chloride (in PVC)
Miscellaneous additives incl. PHCs
Polymer fume fever
Great Pacific garbage patch
Persistent organic pollutant
List of environmental health hazards
California Proposition 65
European REACH regulation
Japan Toxic Substances Law
Toxic Substances Control Act
Great Pacific garbage patch
Persistent organic pollutant
List of environmental health hazards