Everything You Need to Know About Microplastics

An overview of the science, intersectional social justice implications, and actionable items we can all use.

Microplastics are the invisible yet utterly omnipresent physical manifestation of petro-colonialism in the 21st century. Let’s unpack what that means through an intersectional lens and explore how we can mitigate and minimize their impacts.

The Basics

The scientific definition of a microplastic is a plastic particle which measures ≤5mm in diameter (so, about ½ a cm). A key understanding at the outset is that microplastics are literally everywhere — they’ve been found at the tops of the Himalayas, the bottom of the Mariana Trench, in every sampled body of water, in soils, in the arctic (I was there for that one), and, naturally, in our bodies.

The following describes what the lifecycle of a single microplastic might look like. There are many different types of plastics (PET, LDPE, HDPE, etc.) and subcategories of microplastics (fibers make up the overwhelming majority) but let’s focus on what most people think of when they hear ‘microplastic.’ Firstly, crude oil is extracted from the earth (99% of microplastics are made from fossil fuels) 1 , this oil is transported to various refineries to undergo various chemical refinements, and finally it is molded into a piece of macroplastic (let’s say, a plastic detergent bottle). Because the US only recycles 15% of waste, that detergent bottle will either disintegrate into microplastics in landfill, and/or be carried out to the nearest body of water. In either case, the bottle will become brittle from sunlight and break down into infinite tiny pieces. Those pieces will circulate the various systems of the earth, infiltrate the marine food chain, move through our bodies (humans consume a credit card worth of plastic per week), and possibly over time sink to the bottom of the ocean. 2

Exploring the Intersectional Impacts of Microplastics

I believe that microplastics impact everybody and every industry, which sounds scary but also means that everybody and every industry has access to solving the problem. The onus is very much on industry and politicians, but I include the everyday consumer in this equation because this is one of the few areas of the climate crisis where individuals’ consumption and political decisions have a potentially significant impact.

‘Wait, you said ‘climate crisis’ but we’re talking about microplastics.’ Yes, the plastic issue is the climate issue. Fossil fuel companies plan to ramp up plastic production by 40% as use for energy and transportation declines in the coming decades. 3

And where does most fossil fuel extraction happen? BIPOC communities, many of which are currently fighting plastics plants in their own backyards. For example, Sharon Lavigne is fighting the Formosa Plastics Plant in Cancer Alley, LA, and Pueblo Action Alliance is protecting sacred sites, like Chaco Canyon, from fracking development.

Microplastics are colonizing our bodies, just like they colonize every corner of the earth.4 Many of these fossil fuel extraction sites decimate water supplies for local communities, forcing them to rely on bottled water. Unfortunately, bottled water contains 2x the concentration of microplastics as does tap.5 This furthers the physical burden of plastic pollution and microplastics on BIPOC and low-income communities.

Microplastics also impact the bodies of folks of the global majority disproportionately by way of seafood. Those most impacted are the millions of communities globally who rely on seafood for a key protein source and deeply rooted cultural practice. Because microplastics are fully integrated into the food chain, folks have no choice but to continue consuming seafood which contains toxins within, and attached to, microplastics, and is stored in fatty tissues of fish.6

BIPOC and folks of the Global South also play a key, and often invisible, role in recycling and handling plastic. Many of these folks are trash pickers, and many of these countries have had developed nations’ plastic and textile waste forced upon them to deal with.

Minimizing Exposure and Solutions

Because the plastics problem is a climate problem, it is an intersectional justice problem. We must uplift and amplify BIPOC voices, which includes demanding fair voter rights legislation. Call your representatives and advocate for taxes, bans, Extended Producer Responsibility bills, and a carbon tax and dividend. Support grassroots organizations fighting to stop petrochemical plant development and pipeline construction. Support by volunteering, donating, or amplifying their essential work.

Individual actions do matter, especially when you communicate about what you’re doing with those around you. Many reusable alternatives are not financially accessible to low-income folks and BIPOC (another example of plastic’s intersectional issues). If it is accessible to you, simply eliminating disposables and reducing microfiber shedding by wearing natural fibers is a best case scenario on the personal level. However we must be critical of technical and chemical solutions: many recent innovations like the bioplastics realm are ‘less worse’ replacements for the problem and do not negate the issue. Bioplastics are not only counterproductive, they are bad for our health. Many bioplastics break down into methane, a greenhouse gas which is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In fact, researchers at Stanford have created a technology that converts methane gas into PHA, which is sold to plastic producers. The problem? PHA breaks back down into methane, and this cycle only furthers our plastics addiction and climate crisis. You have immense power, but going from one convenience product to a less toxic convenience product is a detour from the solution.

It is in reframing our understanding of plastics and microplastics as a climate and environmental justice issue that we can build a diverse community and demand change on the consumer, political, and community level. Our responsibility is not to save the earth by cutting down on plastic coffee cups (contrary to the corporate marketing that bombards us constantly), but to push our elected officials — who work for us — to turn the ship around. As mentioned above, communicating to your reps and companies you support that you demand EPR and a Carbon Tax (hello H.R. 2307!) is absolutely key. And any personal behavioral change you do adopt is still extremely helpful — keep it up.