What Are Microplastics?

July 13, 2021

What Are Microplastics?

The world is full of really small stuff that has really big effects. From power-packed microchips to teeny-tiny viruses, the small things can make a world of difference. But way before COVID, there was already another microscopic bad actor on the loose: microplastics.

Hold on a minute — what are microplastics, exactly? These tiny pieces of plastic come from the breakdown of the plastic items we use every day, and they’re a grave threat to our environment. Scientists are worried because they’ve found high levels of microplastics in bodies of water around the world, and what’s more, these sneaky plastic bits could be present in everything from the air we breathe to the food we eat.

Reducing the amount of microplastics that go into the environment is an urgent mission for healthy humans and a healthy planet. At Pela, we’re throwing ourselves into the fight, and we’d love for you to come with us — but first, we need to make sure we all know our enemy. 

What Are Microplastics? Here’s the Truth

Microplastics are extremely small pieces of plastic that circulate throughout our world. You can find them in our waterways like rivers, lakes and oceans, but research increasingly suggests that they’re literally everywhere, including in the air, in the soil and in the food we eat

Where do microplastics come from? The source of microplastics is the breakdown of all kinds of plastic goods, from single-use plastic dinnerware to water bottles to plastic parts from appliances. A detailed analysis of microplastics sources includes everything from synthetic textiles to car tires to “city dust” that’s created from a rich variety of household plastics in urban areas. 

Where do microplastics come from

The official size definition of microplastic, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is a piece of plastic less than five millimeters. That’s around the size of a piece of rice, but some microplastics are much smaller, including so-called “nanoplastics” that can only be seen with powerful microscopes. We know even less about nanoplastics and their effects.

How Microplastics Get Into Our Water (and Everywhere Else)

Why doesn’t plastic just go away? How long does it take for plastic to decompose in nature? The unfortunate truth is that a lot of it is basically impossible for natural processes to break down completely. Most plastic materials take hundreds or even thousands of years to degrade. When they do break down, the process is different from the natural decay that happens to a piece of wood, cloth or another biodegradable material.

Instead, a piece of plastic will break down into ever-smaller pieces. A single takeout container will split into dozens, then hundreds, then thousands upon thousands of pieces. The whole time that this process is occurring, the microplastic pieces will also be leaching their toxic chemicals into the water supply. 

Trash left on beaches is a common source of microplastics. The sun and water fracture plastics easily, and tiny pieces of the plastics break off and get carried into the water. But whether it’s on a beach or a rural roadside or a city street, the fact remains that microplastic is on its way into your water supply right now. 

Learn About The Importance of Beach Cleanups Here

The Harmful Effects of Microplastics

What exactly makes microplastics such a threat to our environment? First, we should note that scientists still don’t fully understand all of the potential harmful effects of microplastics. But as more research comes out, the clearer it gets that there’s real cause for concern. 

fish swimming in ocean with plastic waste

Here are some of the negative effects of microplastics that science is warning us about: 

  • Fish, birds and other marine wildlife are accidentally ingesting microplastics at high rates. Some eat plastic because it looks like food, while others eat it because they eat the animals that are ingesting the plastic. 
  • Microplastics don’t just circulate in the ocean. They’re also in the air we breathe, including in normal household dust. Science has only recently discovered this phenomenon, so its potential long-term health effects are almost totally unstudied. 
  • Over time, microplastics can leach chemicals into our water supply. Scientists have found microplastic contamination even in the deep aquifers that provide much of our drinking water.
  • Microplastics can also adsorb certain chemicals present in the environment, known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). The tiny pieces of plastics accumulate these chemicals and may help spread them throughout the environment. 

Obviously, there’s a lot of holes in what we know about microplastics. But what we do know isn’t good, and if you’re concerned — honestly, good, because you should be. 

How Can I Avoid Exposure to Microplastics?

With all of the potential harm that microplastics can do, it’s understandable that people want to avoid them. Both microplastics and chemicals leached from plastic pose potentially grave threats to health and wellness for humans, plants, animals and the many other species on this planet.

avoid exposure to microplastics

  • Use a filter on your tap water. Reverse osmosis filters and carbon block filters are two kinds of commercially available filters that can remove microplastics.
  • Limit your exposure to certain kinds of high-risk seafood. Unfortunately, scientists have found high levels of microplastic pollution in seafood items like mussels and oysters. 
  • Vacuum your living spaces regularly. Microplastics can even be inside your home, hiding in the dust behind your couch or on top of your TV.
  • Get a reusable water bottle (preferably a metal or glass one) rather than drinking water from disposable plastic bottles. Scientists have found tons of microplastics in commercial bottled water, and it can potentially expose you to leached chemicals, too.
  • Don’t microwave food while it’s in a plastic container. Heating a plastic container can cause it to leach chemicals, and those chemicals will end up in your food. 

Now, if there’s one thing the new millennium has shown us, it’s that we can’t just be content to keep ourselves out of harm’s way. Instead, we all have to work together and change our habits in a circle of reciprocity. That’s why we also have to commit to a society-wide change of consumption to avoid creating microplastics in the first place. 

How Can I Avoid Creating Microplastics?

Using less plastic is the number one way that most people can help keep microplastics out of the environment. When you choose products made from sustainable materials, you’re replacing plastic materials that would go into the waste stream with reusable, recyclable or compostable alternatives. 

Your kitchen is the perfect place to start. A durable set of glass food storage containers can replace a lot of plastic wrap and styrofoam, for example. You should also think about the ways you buy and consume food. If you’re frequently ordering takeout or buying a lot of packaged food from the grocery store, remember that most of that plastic packaging eventually turns into microplastics.

Electronics and appliances are another important place to think about adjusting your buying habits. The many millions of pounds of electronic devices that go into landfills every year also contribute to our plastic waste problem, not to mention the other toxic components like lithium batteries that these items often contain. If you can go without that new smartphone for another year, the planet will be grateful. And if you can choose eco-friendly phone accessories to go with it, that’s even better. 

To save our world from microplastics, it’s up to us to create long-term shifts in consumer demand. When fewer people buy plastics and more people buy sustainable goods, the market will adjust to serve consumer demand. That’s why all of us have to band together to demand that our society do something about the threat of microplastics. 

grocery store shopping with reusable bags

The Fight Against Microplastics

It seems crazy that our society isn’t taking aggressive action to do something about microplastics. But unfortunately, our world is built around plastics, especially single-use ones. Government, industry and media haven’t yet caught up to the urgent need to do something about microplastics by making our lifestyles more sustainable. 

Once upon a time, the U.S. and other governments did actually get their act together long enough to ban one type of microplastics. You might remember a time in the early 2010s when products like shower gel and toothpaste often had tiny plastic “scrubbing beads” inside. Scientists and activists almost immediately started raising the alarm about the dangers that these microbeads posed to the health of our water supply. 

In 2015, Congress passed a law that banned wash-off products with microbeads from being sold or manufactured. By 2018, microbead products had been phased out completely in the U.S. The fact that microbeads were successfully banned tells us something: When people pressure the government and industry to act, we can get some great things done. That’s a really important part of what we do at Pela, so let’s talk about it in a little more depth. 

The Plastic-Free Lifestyle with Pela

Pela creates our sustainable phone accessories for the millions of people out there who want to live the good life while reducing waste and protecting the environment. Our phone and device accessories offer a new breed of sustainable goods, including the world’s first compostable phone cases.

love our planet phones

What’s the thinking behind focusing on phone cases and accessories? Here’s the thing: These goods can actually do a lot more harm to the environment than you might realize. Worldwide, consumers buy over one billion plastic phone cases every year. As important as it undoubtedly is to keep your phone protected, these many billions of plastic cases are destined to become a truly scary amount of microplastics. 

But despair never got anybody anywhere, so we decided that it was time to take action instead. Our founders spent years creating an advanced blend of organic materials that could be molded into a format that was rugged but soft and pleasant to the touch. Then, we took our big leap and made that material into the world’s first fully compostable phone case. 

No Plastic? Fantastic!

Pela’s cases are built to be eco-friendly without any sacrifice in performance or looks. The blend of sustainable materials that we make our cases from is fully compostable, meaning that when you’re done with your Pela case, you can simply add it to a kitchen compost bin. It will biodegrade on its own, and it won’t leave behind any microplastics or toxic synthetic ingredients.

You can also count on your Pela case to protect your phone when it counts the most. Our compostable plastic alternative is a durable and strong material, and it’s also soft and easy to grip. That means your phone is better protected from the thrills and spills of everyday life, and you can feel good about your case’s impact on the environment when it’s at the end of its life. 

Composting for Beginners: An Ultimate Guide

A Movement for Sustainability

Compostable phone cases alone can’t solve our microplastics problem, but they can bring us a step closer. Making sustainable choices in the consumer products that you buy is a part of embracing the responsibility toward our planet that every one of us shares. Because, as you probably know, but too many of us forget, it’s the only planet we’ve got. 

Pela always goes the extra mile to ensure that we’re doing everything we can for our planet. That’s why we’re a certified Climate Neutral business that offsets the entirety of our carbon emissions. And it’s why we’re a part of One Percent for the Planet, a global network of businesses that donate at least one percent of their total sales to causes that protect the environment. Not to mention, we just launched a home composter, Lomi, that is not only sleek, but is small enough to keep on your kitchen countertop. 

water air free of plastic pollution

We’re happy to do it. Why? Because we dream of a world where no kid ever has to ask, “Mom, what are microplastics?” again. And we want a world where that same kid, and every kid around the world, can drink clean water and breathe clean air free of plastic pollution. It’s an audacious dream, but there’s never been a more important time to think big. 

Ready to do your part in the battle against microplastics? When you’re rocking a Pela case on your phone, you’ve got an ally by your side. Start exploring our full selection of phone cases now, or shop fan favorites like our turtle phone case to see our most popular eco-friendly styles.  

A Green Living Must-Have: Compostable Phone Cases


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