Microplastics touch every facet of our lives. Smaller than a grain of salt, we interact with them more than we might realize.
Humans inhale about 22,000,000 micro- and nanoplastics annually, and that's because they’re in our food, water, and air.
These tiny plastic particles may be inescapable, but with simple swaps and fixes, you can reduce the amount of microplastic you encounter in your own home.
Kitchen—from packaging to cutting boards
Imagine you’re cooking potatoes for breakfast.
First, you’d remove the spuds from their plastic bag. Simply opening a plastic container releases microplastics, according to a 2020 paper published in Scientific Reports.
Then, you might chop the potatoes on a cutting board. In June, researchers found that slicing food on plastic and wooden cutting boards produces tens of millions of microparticles each year. When those particles are cut on plastic boards, microplastic ensues.
“We should switch to wooden cutting boards,” says Himani Yadav, the study’s lead author and a doctoral researcher at North Dakota State University. “If you clean the wooden cutting board and disinfect it properly, it can go a long way.”
After chopping those potatoes, you’d probably cook them. But overheating and heavy use of nonstick, Teflon-coated pans can add 2.3 million micro and nanoplastics to your food. Researchers estimate we unwittingly consume a credit card’s weight in plastic each week.
So how do you reduce the plastic in your food?
Carry your own reusable bags to avoid buying food that comes in excessive plastic packaging. When heating food, use stainless steel or cast iron instead of nonstick pans.
Another way to limit your exposure is to filter your tap water—a 2019 analysis revealed that plastic fibers are in nearly 95 percent of samples of U.S. tap water.
Bathroom products that aren't so clean
The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 banned rinse-off cosmetics with plastic microbeads but didn’t force companies to exclude plastics entirely. Ninety percent of all cosmetic products contain microplastic, added for viscosity, color, and sparkle. When these products are rinsed off in the shower, about 100,000 plastic particles flood the sewage system, evading wastewater plant filters and polluting waterways.
Rinse-off products are not the only source of plastic in the bathroom.
The deodorant industry is responsible for over 15 million pounds of plastic waste annually. Face and baby wipes that are partially made with plastic can take upwards of a century to degrade, and more than two billion disposable razors reach landfills each year.
You can reduce your plastic consumption by simply opting for reusable alternatives or buying products in low-waste packaging, like shampoo bars, body wash refills, or plastic-free natural deodorants. Use washable cotton pads instead of single-use cotton balls, a safety razor instead of disposable ones, and a bamboo toothbrush. You can even try making your own toothpaste.
Laundry room—a source of plastic fibers
Many articles of clothing are laden with plastic microfibers, which washers and dryers can break apart after repeated cleanings. About 2.2 million tons of microfibers enter oceans each year.
Corinna Williams of Celsious, a sustainable laundry service in New York City, recommends sorting synthetic materials like polyester, nylon, and acrylic from natural textiles like cotton, flax, and hemp.
“It’s best to … wash them in separate loads to reduce microfiber shedding,” she says in an email. “Laundry powder can be abrasive, so when it comes to washing synthetic materials, we usually recommend using an unscented liquid detergent.”
When laundering clothes, wash full loads with cold water on shorter cycles. Delicate settings should be avoided because they use more water than other settings.
“Between washes, we recommend airing clothes out, steaming with a garment steamer, or spraying DIY linen spray,” Williams adds.
You can also add devices like plastic-catching laundry bags and exterior filters to reduce microfiber shedding. Cora Ball, the first microfiber-catching laundry ball, was co-invented by National Geographic explorer Rachael Zoe Miller to help protect our oceans from this kind of debris.
When upgrading, consider purchasing a front-loading washing machine, which is more efficient than a top-loading one. And finally, you can simply wash your clothing less often and hang them to dry.
A plastic-free future?
Ultimately, plastic manufacturers and the companies that sell their products are responsible for the high volume of plastic waste in our environments, and significantly reducing that plastic—and the microplastics that come with it—will require bold legislation like global treaties and state laws.
But individual consumers can still make a difference.
“It’s high time we need to be accountable for the plastic that we think we are not responsible for,” says Yadav.