Microplastics | The real plastic problem

microplastics being created from plastic straws
  • Save

Microplastics are everywhere. From the ocean to the skies. If you’re trying to find out more about the plastic problem and how you can reduce your plastic use, this is the post for you.

Share this post on social media to read later!


It’s not new information that the planet has a plastic problem. I’m sure that most of you reading this are more than aware that single-use plastics are one of the major environmental concerns today. 

You might not see a lot of evidence of plastic pollution in your daily life. That’s thanks to recycling schemes, rubbish collection and street cleaning. But it’s there.

Nowhere does it seem to be more obvious than on beaches and in the oceans. 

Take a look around you right now. There’s probably something close at hand, made out of plastic, that you’ll be throwing away. A bottle. A pen. The plastic bag your mixed lettuce arrived in.

It’s okay though because you recycle, don’t you?

Well, that would be cool, only less than 10% of plastic actually gets recycled. For a load of reasons I probably don’t need to bore you with.

So, I think we’re all pretty clear on what plastic is. Although some of you might not realise that lots of clothes are made out of plastic.

Not just the ones that say “I’m made from recycled plastic bottles”, but the ones that say “Polarfleece” or “polyester” or “nylon”. You know, ordinary clothes. So that’s a bummer.

The worse news is that most of us, even with our reusable bottles and saying no to straws, are still pumping microplastics out into the world.

They come out of our clothing. Yes, even cool clothes made from recycled plastic.

They come off tyres as they roll down the road. Yes, even if you’re on the bus.

So, this article is all about microplastics, how you can help prevent more from being created, and what to do about the ones that are already here.


What is a Microplastic?

You definitely know what plastic is, and most of you probably know that a whole host of governments around the world have pledged to get rid of the single-use ones.

Some of you may know people who became very pissed off when they suddenly had to pay extra for the privilege of a sturdier plastic bag. 

Honestly though, how does swapping a flimsy bag for a sturdy one that’s still made out of plastic actually change plastic use?

That’s a rhetorical question, and one that we can save for a chat about greenwashing. Moving on.

Microplastics are essentially the tiny babies that are created by all the plastic in our lives falling apart. They’re bits of plastic that are smaller than 5mm in length, and they’re being found literally everywhere.

They’re in your house. Up Everest. Down the Mariana trench. They’re even inside you! And the really cool part? We don’t even know what effects they have on us. So far, so awesome.

Basically, plastic pollution isn’t something that’s happening on tropical beaches, or just killing animals in the sea. It’s happening in your house.

Right now.

microplastics being created from plastic straws
  • Save

How do plastics become microplastics?

Well, as plastic gets older it gets more fragile.

Just like me.

So what used to be your TV begins to break into big chunks of plastic. Then those big chunks get fragile and turn into smaller pieces. This happens over a considerable period of time until eventually, those pieces are smaller than 5mm. 

And now your TV has found a new life as a microplastic, ready to wreak havoc on the world.

Sometimes it’s even easier than that. You throw it in your washing machine, or spit it down the drain or wash off some lovely exfoliating scrub, and those ready-made microplastics just head on down the drain and off into a land of ocean adventure.

How much microplastic pollution is there?

Back in 2014, some clever people worked out that there were more than five trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean. Once you reach those kinds of numbers, people even start giving you a name: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch 

Fun fact: the pacific garbage patch is not an island made of plastic, nor is it a raft of solid plastic the size of the USA. It’s loads of microplastics swirling around the oceans, that end up being concentrated where currents meet. Which, incidentally is also where the water is nutrient-rich.

Which, also incidentally, is where a load of marine life feeds.

So now you know.

14 million tonnes of plastic enters the oceans every year, which is apparently a rubbish truck a minute. I’m sure you’ve seen the news that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. It all makes for a pretty grim read.

Why are microplastics in the ocean important?

A better question: why is the ocean important?

Well, it provides more than half the world’s oxygen and sequesters 50 times more carbon than our atmosphere. It sustains a lot of biodiversity, all of which is pretty important for, you know, life on Earth as we know it. 

Oceans make clouds, which make snow and rain and all that wet stuff that falls from the sky. It’s really shit when you’re camping, but really important when you need fresh drinking water. Oh, but did I mention all those microplastics in the ocean? They’re in the clouds too.

So, in news that surprises nobody who has the ability to logic, if you stick microplastics in the ocean, they come back to bite you in the ass. 75-80% of marine litter is plastic, and 80% of that comes from dry land. The remaining 20% is marine waste from fisheries and shipping and debris, like broken fishing lines and nets.

If you’ve been to a beach lately (which I appreciate has not been an option for a lot of you), then you’ve probably seen some plastic rubbish washed up on the shore.

a monkey holding a plastic bottle
  • Save
plastic rubbish dump at Everest
  • Save

I imagine it made you think that the beach didn’t look very nice and that you didn’t want to sit there or swim. If there was a significant amount of rubbish, you probably told your friends not to go to that beach because it was dirty. 

It’s entirely possible that someone’s livelihood depends on people going to that beach, or the water being clean enough for marine life to thrive.

So, this plastic on this beach has negative impact on tourism, the health of local people and the state of the local economy.

And that plastic you saw? Possibly came from another country entirely.

Incidentally, the only things in the ocean that enjoy microplastics are bacteria and algae.

  • Save

They have a nice surface to hang onto and build colonies and then, just when they’re having the most fun, they get taken on holiday by a trans-pacific current!

Sounds great for the bacteria. It’s not so good when you get an algal bloom or invasive species destroying a marine environment in another part of the world.

I don’t eat fish or seafood so I’m safe from microplastics, right?


Remember that part about how microplastics are seeding clouds? Yeah, those clouds water crops and go into our fresh water supplies. If you breath air, eat food and drink anything containing water, you’re ingesting microplastics.

Things you probably use that can end up being microplastic pollution

  1. Cosmetics with microbeads. The microbeads are plastic. They’re banned in the UK thanks to a concerted effort by Greenpeace way back in 2016.
  2. Surfboards
  3. Clothes and shoes
  4. Anything with tyres
  5. Plastic bottles (yes, even the reusable bottle you take everywhere with you)
  6. Balloons and glitter
  7. Chairs
  8. Carpets

I’m willing to bet that you’ve thrown away something on that list. I know I have.

How can we stop microplastic pollution?

I’m so glad you asked.

This is one of those moments where I want to remind you that whilst every single one of us can do our part, this is a massive problem that requires governments and international bodies to do their bit.

The really awesome part is that 100% of marine litter is due to human behaviour. So all we have to do is get the message out to everybody that’s contributing to the problem and get them to unite to fix the problem.

And getting almost 8 billion people to agree on something is usually so easy… 

Fun fact, there’s about 625 pieces of microplastic in the ocean for every person on the planet.

Now is a good time to mention circular economies.

  • Save

The idea is this: we go back to a time where things were made to be repaired. Anything that can’t be repaired should be repurposed, and it’s the responsibility of the manufacturer to ensure that processes are in place to allow this to happen.

Talk about it! One of my favourite phrases is “well I’m not psychic, am I?!” and, I suspect you have many non-psychic people in your life too.

I’d advise starting a conversation with “I read this amazing blog post on Cat’s Nine Lives all about microplastic pollution”, rather than “did you know you’re destroying the planet with your takeaway coffee cup?”. In my experience you’ll get further with education than accusation.

Other important things to know about microplastics

Some studies show ingesting plastic is terrible for marine life.

Others show no harm.

There’s a lot of debate about the real world implications of microplastics on organisms because it’s hard to study outside a lab. We do know that plastics absorb pollutants really well – it’s why some gas stations hang bags of plastic particles to catch toxins before they enter water supplies.

Logic would therefore lead to the following conclusions:

There’s microplastic everywhere (accepted fact)

Microplastics absorb hazardous chemicals (accepted fact)

Marine life eats microplastics (accepted fact)

Microplastics are toxic to marine life in large part due to absorbed toxins (highly likely)

Microplastics are toxic to people for the same reason (highly likely)

Either way, a lot of smart science people wanted plastic to be reclassified as a hazardous waste way back in 2013…

Plastic waste has been shown to provide a lovely environment for insects, and was directly linked to an outbreak of Dengue fever in the Phillippines.

Waste-picking is an entire industry in some countries, and plastic waste causes injuries to the people sorting through it.

  • Save
  • Save

There’s good evidence of cancer cluster, respiratory illnesses and even birth defects in communities who live near plastic incineration facilities.

The good news is that waste-water and drinking water treatment gets rid of loads of microplastic. At least 90%. Good for me, I live in a country with great water treatment facitilites. Bad for you if you don’t.

What can I do to reduce microplastic pollution?

Get educated about the microplastic problem

The most important thing you can do is start learning more about the problem. Parley TV is a great resource.

Use reusable shopping bags

Bring your resuable bags with you when you go shopping. It’s not hard and it actually does make a difference.

No plastic straws

You can get bamboo or metal straws if you really need one for your drink. It’s worth remembering that lots of places will automatically stick a straw in your drink unless you tell them you don’t want one.

Shop at zero waste stores and farmers markets

Read some feel-good stuff here. Remember that plastic-wrapped fruit and veg isn’t more hygeinc than stuff with a bit of dirt on. You should be washing your groceries before you eat them anyway!

Return the soft plastic your groceries come in

You may not know that many large supermarkets and grocery stores will actually take back those soft plastics to send off for recycling. This is great, beacuse many domestic recycling bins don’t actually take them.


Find out what recycling is done by your local area. This will impact what you can put in your recycling bins.

Take it home

If you decide to use a plastic fork in a country without recycling infrastruction, please don’t stick it in a overflowing bin somewhere so that it can end up in an ocean. Instead, take it home and recycle it. Help build ethical recycling and circular supply chains with PlasticBank.

Choose organic, natural clothing if possible

Organic linen and cotton are the best options to avoid microplastic production. Linen has a slight edge when it comes to being better for the enviroment. Use companies already trying to find solutions, like Patagonia. Also try to shop with B-corp – these businesses take on a mission statement where social or environmental justice is on equal par with the profit motive.

Wash your clothes with care

Microplastics get released every time you wash clothes that are made from plastic in your washing machine. You can reduce this by making sure there’s a microplastic filter in your machine. Alternatively use a Guppyfriend or Cora Ball. If you’re in the UK then sign this petition to get filters into washing machines by law. Wash your clothes less, with a full load, at lower temperatures with less water.

  • Save
  • Save

So, there you have it. Everything you needed to know about microplastic pollution and what you can do to help out. If you’ve got any other advice or suggestions then please let me know in the comments!

microplastic pollution in the ocean
  • Save


If you found this guide useful, follow me on Instagram to stay up to date with my travels.


I’d also love it if you would follow me on Pinterest and help by sharing this guide on your social media if you found it useful!

Subscribe to my newsletter for travel tips, inspiration and exclusives delivered straight to your inbox once a month!

  • Save

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *