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Microplastics: How the smallest pieces cause the biggest problems

Out of sight and out of mind: Microplastics are small pieces but not a small problem. Read more from Abbey on the sources and effects of microplastics, and what you can do to help!

What are microplastics?

Microplastics are pieces of plastic that are 5 mm long and smaller. They can be created deliberately (microbeads and plastic pellets used in manufacturing) or result from degradation of larger pieces of plastic. Right now, there are 51 trillion pieces of plastic in the oceans.

Microplastic fiber viewed under a fluorescent microscope (40x magnification). I took this photo as part of my technical thesis project on microplastics in urban wetlands.


Where do they come from?

Microplastics come from many sources. When synthetic fabrics such as nylon or rayon are washed, some of the fibers are released and are not removed in water treatment plants. These treatment plants then dump the plastics into the environment. Near urban areas, microplastic pollution often comes from roads. When tires wear down, the pieces that are worn off can enter nearby bodies of water, which then drain into the ocean.

Microplastics also come from larger pieces of plastic debris that have been broken down by the sun, wind, and waves.


What do microplastics do to the environment?

Microplastics are eaten by marine life, causing them to feel full while starving and results in altered behaviour. In high concentrations, microplastics can prevent sunlight from penetrating and prevent phytoplankton from getting enough sunlight. Plastics take hundreds, sometimes thousands of years to break down, so they can build up quickly and are very difficult to remove once they are in the environment. Microplastics can also act as a sponge for toxic chemicals such as DDT and heavy metals and can poison wildlife.


How can I help?

  • Microbeads are in some facial cleansers, soaps, and even toothpastes, so be sure to check the list of ingredients for microbeads.

  • Most glitter is made from plastic, so ensure that any glitter you buy is biodegradable.

  • Choose natural fabrics over synthetics, especially for items that need to be washed often.

  • Reduce driving to reduce pollution from wearing down car tires.

  • Because microplastics also result from degradation of larger items, decreasing overall plastic use, especially single-use plastics, will prevent microplastic pollution.

  • Participate in local trash cleanups.

While microplastics are a significant problem, there are always actions we can take to reduce our impacts and improve the health of the oceans!


Trash that was cleaned up around Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John's, NL.

Abbey Robertson

She/her

Wolfville, NS

Abbey is a recent graduate of the Marine

Environmental Technology diploma program at the Marine Institute of Memorial University. She will be spending the next year completing a bachelor’s degree. She is passionate about marine conservation and enjoys sailing, hiking,

cycling, and playing music.


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