close-up of microplastics on a person's fingers

Plastics are all around us, in food packaging, clothing, carpeting, personal care products, appliances, cars, and electronics. Yet, humans have only been using plastics since the 1950s, and there is a lot that we’re still learning about this substance. We’ve only recently learned about microplastics, yet they are already widespread throughout the environment — can we avoid them?

Researchers are finding microplastics, which are pieces of plastic smaller than 5 millimeters, in food, soil, water, and even the air we breathe. Microplastics vary in size and makeup and can contain various polymers and additives, such as flame retardants, plastic stabilizers, and colorants. Initially, scientists started finding microplastic pollution in marine habitats across the globe. Then they began discovering them everywhere.

Because microplastics are so tiny, it’s easy to ingest them in food, water, and the air. In fact, researchers estimate that we ingest between 39,000 and 52,000 particles annually. Although the exact health implications of our exposure to microplastics are unknown, the presence of dangerous chemical substances in them poses potential health concerns. More research is needed for a complete understanding of the risks.

Although there are many ways to ingest microplastics, common sense dictates it’s best to minimize our exposure to them. Fortunately, there are relatively easy ways to reduce your exposure to microplastics.

Where Do Microplastics Come From?

There are two main sources: primary and secondary. Primary sources are made to be small, such as glitter, microfibers used to produce fleece, and microbeads in cosmetics. By contrast, secondary sources are bigger plastic items that break down into small pieces, such as plastic bags, straws, and fishing nets in the ocean.

How Can I Avoid Microplastics?

It all begins by identifying how you might be ingesting plastic and then lowering this exposure. It will likely result in you using less plastic, which can also have a positive environmental impact.

Avoid Bottled Water

Drinking bottled water is a common way to ingest microplastics. According to researchers, drinking only bottled water can result in consuming 90,000 plastic particles annually compared to 4,000 from tap water. If you have concerns about the quality of the tap water in your area, using a water filter might be a good idea. Also, bottled water is not subject to the same testing requirements as most tap water, so the actual quality is often unknown.

Carefully Select Tea Bags

It might surprise you that many tea bags are made out of plastic. Pouring boiling water over a plastic bag to brew tea can release billions of microplastics and nanoparticles into the tea, according to researchers. Another issue is that synthetic tea bags are not compostable.

There are two primary ways to avoid these issues. One solution is to brew loose tea in a reusable metal or glass strainer. The other is to carefully select tea brands that use natural fibers for their teabags, including Clipper Tea, Nuni, Republic of Tea, and Yogi Tea. Both loose tea and natural fiber tea bags are safe for your compost pile.

Toddler lying on carpeted floor
Because they spend more time on the floor than adults, young children have a higher risk of inhaling microplastics in the dust. Photo: StockSnap from Pixabay

Choose Natural Flooring Products

An Australian study found that the dust in our homes can contain a variety of microplastics, which puts babies and toddlers at especially high risk of ingesting them through the air because they spend more time on the floor than adults. However, the flooring type and frequency of vacuuming impacted the prevalence and type of particles.

Households with carpeting had nearly double the amount of petrochemical-based fibers like polyethylene and polyester, whereas homes with hard floors had more polyvinyl fibers. Also, vacuuming the floors at least once a week can reduce airborne particles.

Use Natural Fibers

Because synthetic fibers such as polyester and acrylic are known to produce microplastics, choosing natural fibers for your clothing and household goods would logically help reduce airborne exposure. Therefore, select carpeting, clothing, bedding, and towels that contain natural fibers whenever possible.

Also, synthetic fabrics, such as polar fleece, shed microplastic fibers into the water when laundering them. Although this might not directly impact your exposure, it does increase the presence of microplastics in the environment.

Avoid Certain Types of Seafood

Unfortunately, because the marine environment is contaminated with microplastics, so are some types of seafood. In particular, small fish that are eaten whole and bivalves, including clams, oysters, muscles, and scallops, are of particular concern. Reduce your consumption of these types of seafood to reduce your exposure.

Don’t Heat Food in Plastic

Studies show that heating food or water in plastic causes it to release more microparticles. So, avoid microwaving food in plastic or washing plastics in the dishwasher. Likewise, putting hot food in plastic dishes and using plastic cooking utensils, such as a plastic spatula, can be cause for concern.

Glass and metal make great alternatives; just be sure to avoid putting metal items in the microwave. Metal or wooden cooking utensils are an excellent alternative to plastic ones.

Although we can’t eliminate our exposure to microplastics without using a time machine, reducing or removing some of the biggest culprits is a big step. Further scientific research will also help us make more informed decisions on reducing our exposure.

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.