Updated: Jun 3, 2022
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are plastic fragments (of any type of plastic) that are less than 5mm in size.
Types of microplastics
There are two types of microplastics, namely, Primary and Secondary.
Primary microplastics are those that are manufactured such that their original size is less than 5mm. [E.g. microbeads in facewash or toothpastes]
Secondary Microplastics are those that have fragmented from larger plastic items. [E.g. fragmented plastics from bottles, plastic bags or containers, nylon ropes, etc.]
The Majestic Plastic Bag - A Mockumentary
Since the 1950s, more than 8 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced.
SOME NEWS FLASHES
Last September, the Environment Ministry of the state of West Bengal, India banned the usage of plastic bags of thickness less than 75 microns. This regulation came merely as a consequence of severe waterlogging in Kolkata (which had been seeing incessant rains) mainly caused due to the blockage of drains and canals, and pump failures by plastic bags, packets, or wrappers. However, this ban is too little and too late considering the harm that has already been done to the environment by plastics, especially single-use plastics. Moreover, it also means that plastics with thicknesses of more than 75 microns can be used which doesn't take care of plastic pollution!
The growing sedimentary layer of plastics of all sizes on all of earth's environmental spheres are evidence of a geological shift to the Anthropocene epoch. Researchers reported "the appearance of a new “stone” formed through intermingling of melted plastic, beach sediment, basaltic lava fragments, and organic debris from Kamilo Beach on the island of Hawaii."
Plastics have become a part of our daily lives; plastic littering or improper disposal of plastic wastes has become a major problem throughout the world, as this improper disposal creates a negative environmental impact. The disposal of plastic wastes is not similar to the disposal of food wastes or other wastes. Food wastes are organic and easily decompose and get converted into harmless natural elements. However, plastics, which are derived from fossil fuel-based chemicals like petroleum, are non-biodegradable. This means that all plastics that have ever been produced throughout the world have been getting accumulated in the environment and are still present in one form or the other.
It has become impossible to avoid the use of plastics altogether. A major part of plastics in households comes from food or grocery packaging which can't be avoided. However, some simple and effective habits adopted by every individual can help in: minimizing plastic usage, avoiding ingesting microplastics, generating less plastic wastes, and thus contributing to a cleaner, healthier selves and the environment.
Some ways we can start to reduce plastic usage and plastic waste from our lives are given below:
1. Avoid using plastic straws, plastic spoons, or plastic forks when eating out
Sip your drinks directly from glass or cups or coconut. If that seems to be problematic, carry your own reusable straw made of steel or bamboo.
Carry your own reusable cutlery (steel or bamboo) wherever you go.
Even though plastic straws are technically recyclable, they are so lightweight that they cannot be easily sorted in the recycling machinery and eventually get dumped in landfills or reach the water bodies.
2. Pack lunches in metal or glass containers
Since glass is heavier, it is always a good practice to shift to steel tiffin/lunch boxes to avoid eating microplastics or other toxic chemicals (leaching from plastic) along with the food from plastic lunch boxes.
*Heat and plastics do not go well together..
3. Stop using plastic wraps as food covers
One can use paper wraps or silicon wraps/pouches for keeping their food fresh. Though silicon wraps are a better alternative to plastics, they are not infinitely recyclable, unlike steel or glass. The best way to cover your food is with steel or glass.
Phthalates, found in food packaging and plastic wraps, have been linked to reproductive dysfunction in animal studies; some research results have also suggested links to decreased fertility, neurodevelopmental issues, and asthma in humans.
Plastic wraps are not recyclable as they come in direct contact with food and hence are contaminated. If they are to be sent for recycling, they need to be thoroughly cleaned before the process which is generally avoided.
[You can also read: The sticky problem of plastic wrap]
4. Buy loose tea leaves for drinking tea instead of tea bags
Many premium tea brands use silken bags as tea bags which are made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate, found in plastic drink bottles) or nylon. On coming in contact with hot water, these tea bags release microplastics in our tea which are ingested by us as we drink that tea. Moreover, these tea bags become a threat to the environment as they are thrown off after use.
However, if you cannot do without tea bags, then look for brands that use paper or other organic materials (hemp, wood pulp) for making tea bags. You can also use steel tea infusers if simple strainers (for loose tea) seem messy to use. Even when it comes to tea strainers, you should consider shifting to steel strainers if you are using plastic strainers, as heat and plastics are not a good combination. When exposed to heat, polyethylene and polypropylene in plastic can break down, leaching unknown chemicals into food or drinks.
According to a Down to Earth article, 'One tea bag can release 11.6 billion microplastics into your cup'
5. Avoid using wet wipes
Not all wet wipes are biodegradable. Most wet wipes contain plastics since they are manufactured using PET or PP (polypropylene) with cotton woven together with plastic resins. In addition to this, wet wipes often contain certain chemicals and preservatives which can cause skin irritation, especially in children.
Good old handkerchiefs or cloth pieces are the best alternatives to wet wipes. However, if you can't do without wet wipes, then go for reusable and/or biodegradable and compostable alternatives.
6. Avoid using plastic water bottles and buying bottled water
Plastic bottles and plastic jugs are used in many households to store water. This is not a very healthy practice as plastic contains a lot of chemicals (which may eventually leach into the water); also, bacteria and other microorganisms tend to attach themselves easily to plastic membranes. Additionally, the production of plastic water bottles incurs a hefty carbon footprint.
Steel or glass, even copper, water bottles are the safest choices when it comes to drinking water bottles.
Unless it is completely unavoidable, it is always a good practice to carry your own water bottle (made of steel/glass/copper) when traveling. Refill your bottles at drinking water stations.
[You may also read: 5 Harmful Side-Effects of Drinking From Plastic Water Bottles]
7. Avoid using non-stick (TEFLON) cookware
All non-stick cookware gets coated with a material called polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) (a plastic), commonly known as Teflon. At temperatures higher than 260 deg centigrade, the Teflon coating starts to break down releasing toxic fumes into the air. Inhaling these fumes may lead to polymer fume fever, also known as the Teflon flu. Also, Teflon containers get scratched easily which runs the risk of contaminating the food with toxic chemicals.
Stainless steel or cast iron cookware is the best cookware for any and everyday use. They are also non-toxic, scratch-resistant, and easy to clean.
8. Avoid using plastic loofahs, use natural loofahs
I remember, not long ago, some bodywash companies would provide plastic loofahs for free with their bodywash. While it's nice to have freebies, improper disposal of plastic loofahs is toxic to the environment.
Instead of plastic loofahs, you can opt for natural loofahs that are much cheaper, more effective in scrubbing off dead cells, and environment-friendly.
I've always liked the natural loofahs (Luffa, belonging to the cucumber family) which we get in our 'Dashakarma Bhandar' (variety store), which are made of natural fibres and are easily biodegradable.
9. Avoid drinking from paper cups
I have always loved the earthy smell of tea in a 'bhar/kulhad' (clay cup) that tea stalls or tea sellers used to serve (some sellers still do). But it's disheartening to see that many tea stall owners or tea sellers have shifted from 'bhar/kulhad' to paper cups as the paper cups are lighter and not easily breakable.
Most of the paper cups are coated with a thin layer of plastic to prevent damage of the cups and spilling of the drink.
According to an article in Nature India, "a person drinking three cups of tea or coffee daily (from paper cups) might ingest 75,000 tiny plastic particles that are invisible to the human eye."
10. Shift to rechargeable batteries for your remotes and other electronic devices
Often plastic films and plastic cases are used inside the batteries to separate the electrodes and electrolytes. So when a battery is disposed of, these plastic components get exposed to the environment thus causing plastic pollution in addition to the toxic chemicals that make up their composition.
Batteries can be recycled if they are dispensed responsibly to e-waste recyclers. However, instead of increasing the amount of waste, we can be more responsible by shifting to rechargeable ones which can last for years if handled properly and is also economical in the long run.
11. Wear clothing made from natural fibers
Owing to fast fashion, clothes are being purchased at a frequency as never before. As the frequency of buying has increased, orientation towards cheaper (read synthetic), durable, and easy to carry (crease-free) has increased. These synthetic (made of nylon or polyester) garments are a huge source of microplastics. With each wash, these clothes shed millions of microplastic filaments that enter our sewage system and ultimately to the waterbodies.
About 92 million tonnes of clothing waste is generated every year which is either incinerated or sent to landfills.
That is not to say that natural clothing is harmless to the environment. Cotton itself requires an enormous amount of water to grow and also during the whole fabric production process. [Please refer to my article related to this data: https://www.musingsofbri.com/post/fast-fashion-and-the-environment-the-denim-story]
However, cotton and other natural fibers are biodegradable and do not keep accumulating in the environment for hundreds of years like plastic does.
12. Avoid using bin bags for your trash (even the compostable ones)
Last year I purchased a pack of compostable trash bags (as the pack said) from amazon to throw the extra wet wastes generated from my kitchen (as my compost bins were running full). To check whether they are compostable, I threw pieces of a 'compostable' trash bag (shiny green color) in my compost bin along with the wet waste (pic on the left). As you can see from the pic (on the right), after four months my wet wastes have majorly composted (will need 1 month of curing), but the trash bag pieces remain intact. So, I doubt they are compostable as the brands claim to be. I still have that pack of trash bags because I'd stopped using them altogether but I don't know what to do with them.
No matter what the companies claim, bin bags are plastic and eventually end up in landfills, polluting the soil and turning into microplastics due to weathering actions and thus, entering the ecosystem.
12. Do not snip off the corner of your milk, spice, or any packet
Let's say you are segregating your plastic packets to be sent for recycling. In that case, if you snip off the corner of the packets, these small plastic corners do not reach the recycling unit as they are too small and often get misplaced (read fly away) due to their size and weight. And these snipped-off corners generate a huge amount of plastic waste which easily gets converted into microplastics. As Tejaswini Anathkumar, chairperson of Adamya Chetna had tweeted in 2019 that 'Bengaluru alone can stop generating 50,00,000 small plastic pieces getting in the garbage if they cut the milk packets right'.
The plastic packets should be cut in such a way (preferably horizontally instead of diagonally as shown in the pic) that the corners do not get separated from the main packet. Even if, the corners get accidentally snipped off, you should put the small cut-off corner inside the packet and send it for recycling.
13. Avoid home food deliveries unless any situation arises that prevents you from eating out
Home-delivered food comes in plastic containers wrapped in plastic wraps both of which are made for single use. Moreover, hot food and plastic are not a 'healthy' combination as toxic substances leach out from plastic with heat. After their intended use, these plastics add to waste unless you re-use these containers for other purposes.
14. Avoid plastic bottles and plastic toys for your kids
Buy toys made of natural materials (wood, bamboo, clay, natural fabrics, steel, tin) for your kids. However, if any plastic toy is your only option, opt for PVC (polyvinyl chloride) free and BPA (Bisphenol-A -- a hormone disrupter able to mimic and interfere with hormone systems) free toys.
PVC contains dangerous chemical additives including phthalates, lead, cadmium, and/or organotins, which can be toxic to your child's health. These toxic additives can leach out or evaporate into the air over time, posing unnecessary dangers to children. [Link to the source]
According to a study published in the naturefood journal, plastic baby bottles shed numerous microplastics when heated. The study suggests that bottle-fed infants around the world may be consuming more than 1.5 million particles of microplastics per day on average. Microplastics were also observed when the researchers filled the plastic baby bottles with room temperature water and shook them for about 60 seconds, to simulate normal formula preparations.
Though the effect of microplastics on babies has not been researched, it is always safer to steer clear of plastic containers/bottles, especially, when it comes to babies.
15. Carry your own cloth bag for shopping.
Do not buy plastic bags or bring free plastic bags to carry your store-bought items. They increase plastic pollution as we've already discussed earlier. Shop owners are forced to keep plastic bags for fear of losing customers (who don't carry their own bags). However, if you carry your own bags, they will be happy to be plastic-bag free (according to my survey with some shopkeepers).
However, if we buy a cloth bag (thinking it's reusable and less harmful to the environment) every time we go shopping, we'll be doing more harm than good, as each cotton bag production leaves a huge carbon footprint. So it is always best to carry a cloth bag wherever you go lest you end up shopping and reuse it till it's no longer usable.
16. Avoid using sponge wipes or microfibre cloths for kitchen wipes
When it comes to convenience, these super-absorbent, lightweight, and fast-drying sponge wipes or microfibre cloths have no competition. However, both these materials are made from polyester and nylon which shed microplastics with each use. Also, their disposal adds to landfill waste and pollutes soil and water bodies.
The best substitute for these items is cloth napkins made from upcycled cotton rags from old clothes or linens or other textiles.
17. Buy things in bulk
Any grocery item that does not have a very short shelf life can be bought in bulk so the amount of plastic packaging is reduced. For example, a floor cleaner is used regularly in many homes, and hence, it's a constant purchase in many homes. Let's say a house needs 500 ml of floor cleaner every month. So, instead of buying 500 ml of the cleaner every month, we can buy a 2-liter bottle of the cleaner that can be used for 4 months and we reduce the plastic waste (4 bottles to 1 bottle).
18. Women should try and shift to menstrual cups
According to a study, 'a single commercially available non-organic sanitary pad takes up to 250-800 years to decompose or may even never decompose at all'. According to a new study titled 'Menstrual Products and their Disposal', 'about 12.3 billion or 113,000 tonnes of used sanitary pads are dumped in landfills in India every year, adding to the already existing plastic pollution in the country'.
Commonly available sanitary napkins contain about 90% plastic. In the case of tampons, not only the applicator, but many tampons also incorporate some plastic bits in the absorbent part itself. A thin plastic layer often helps to hold the tightly-packed cotton part together. In some cases, the string is also made of polyester or polypropylene. All these are further aggravating the plastic crisis.
The menstrual cup is a waste-free as well as an economic option. If you are not in a situation to use menstrual cups, you can opt for organic sanitary pads which use a lesser amount of plastic (but plastic will still be there). Reusable cloth pads are also a waste-free option; however, many women may not find it convenient.
19. Make a shift from plastic toothbrushes to wooden/bamboo toothbrushes
Plastic toothbrushes are not recyclable as they get stuck in the machinery.
[The pic (above ) says it all]
According to a Dental Tribune article:
Considering the world’s population of 7.53 billion people, that makes roughly 29.4 billion toothbrushes each year. On average, a plastic toothbrush weighs around 20 g and so it can be calculated that the whole of humanity produces 600 million kg of plastic toothbrush waste in only 365 days.
20. Avoid using plastic ball-point pens
Use pencils for all informal writings. They are cheaper too. For formal work, shift to fountain pens with metal bodies and refillable ink. You can also use biodegradable pens or refillable ballpoint pens.
The plastic pens are generally not recycled as the metal nib and ink are difficult to separate.
21. Make a shift from liquid body washes and shampoos to body soaps and shampoo bars
22. If there is more than one item in your online shopping cart, then buy them together to reduce packaging wastes (as they are mostly plastic)
Having said these, it is also important to keep in mind that in the bid to go plastic-free, we should not immediately discard any plastic containers or utensils that have been recently purchased and add to the plastic waste burden.
Let's say you've recently purchased a non-stick (TEFLON) pan for your kitchen. Please do not throw it immediately to stop ingesting plastic. As I've mentioned earlier, if TEFLONs are used at a temperature lower than 260 deg centigrade, then it's safe to use until they have developed scratches or peel-offs. However, if you are still not willing to use it for the purpose you've purchased (say a planter), you can use it for other purposes other than preparing food.
23. Send your plastic wastes to plastic recyclers
Since we cannot avoid plastics altogether and most plastic waste comes from our kitchen (food packaging viz. spice packets, bread packets, biscuit packets), the best option is to segregate them and send them to recyclers. The Recycle India Foundation provides a list of plastic recyclers in every state of India. You may send your plastic trash to these recyclers so that plastics generated at your home do not end up in landfills or water bodies.
I give my plastic as well as newspaper waste to Waste wheels (based in Kolkata), a solid waste management company. They collect the trash from homes and hand them over to the recyclers, where the plastics are segregated according to their types, and color and crushed, and then converted to pellets to be sent to manufacturers.
In the above pics:
The recycling facility where Waste wheels send the collected plastic wastes to
Ecokaari (a Pune-based company) collects plastic wastes and upcycles them into various fashion items (bags, planters, etc.)
Recharkha (also a Pune-based company) collects plastic wastes and upcycles them into various fashion items (bags, planters, etc.) with the help of tribal women & Artisans.
In conclusion, I'd like to add that -- No matter how much plastics we send to recyclers, it is important to remember that they are NOT infinitely recyclable. After a few cycles, the plastics start to lose their characteristics and need to be disposed of which eventually ends up in the environment thus adding to pollution. It is up to us to become conscious and enforce restraints in purchases and use of products (that are not a necessity) that add to plastic pollution.
The companies should also take initiative in creating a circular economy where they collect their own packing wastes (against certain incentives to consumers (optional)) and recycle them, which not only reduces waste but also reduces the cost of buying packaging materials in the long run.
Some references have already been provided as links in the texts..