Any plastic piece that’s less than five millimeters in length is known as microplastic. To better understand how tiny these pieces are, a grain of rice is a little larger. It’s about the size of a pencil eraser.
Microplastics come from plastic that’s not recycled and breaks down. Small fragments chip or flake off as the sun bakes the plastic, wind blows it around, or waves and currents batter it.
Have you ever purchased a body wash with exfoliating microbeads? Those are a type of microplastic called a microbead. They’re also highly problematic to aquatic life.
When microbeads go down a drain, they eventually end up in a wastewater treatment plant. That’s where one problem arises. Microbeads can get through the filtration process and enter water sources like lakes and rivers, where they collect contaminants found in the water, such as mercury, and end up in the fish.
Microplastics are everywhere. You’re not just at risk of breathing them or consuming them in your drinking water. Here are ten unusual places where microplastics have been discovered.
#1 – Bees
A Danish study looked at the bees from 19 hives in and around Copenhagen. After looking at the bees under microscopes, microplastics were found on bees collected in the city and bees in nearby countryside. It’s not known if the bees collected the microplastic particles while flying in the air or getting the particles from the pollen they collect.
The worker bees seemed to be the ones with the microplastics. The impact plastic has on the queen and drones is unknown. What is known is that it explains why microplastics are turning up in products like honey.
A 2020 study looked at beer, other beverages, honey, and milk to see if microplastics were present. To qualify, the items had to be in glass jars rather than plastic. Everything tested had microplastics and other contaminants, but craft beer and craft honey contained the most.
#2 – Beer
Honey isn’t the only popular food or beverage item containing microplastics. Germany put its country’s beers to the test and looked at 24 different brewers. All of their beers were found to contain microplastics.
Additional studies have been undertaken. University of Minnesota researchers tested the beers from breweries that get their water from water treatment plants along the Great Lakes. Most were found to have around four particles per liter of beer, but one beer had 14 particles per liter.
#3 – Bottled Water
When you buy bottled water, you expect the water to be filtered and clean. A test of more than 250 bottles found microplastics in 93% of the bottles. The water you’re drinking may not be as clean as you imagine.
#4 – Fish
You’ve probably seen photos of a turtle with a straw stuck up its nose. You’ve seen videos of seals with plastic fishing lines wrapped around their fins. You probably aren’t aware that microplastics are found inside fish. When plastics make their way into fish, it’s often in their gills and gastrointestinal system. Can that really harm you since you don’t eat those portions?
The answer is yes. Microplastics absorb toxins like copper, lead, and mercury. When the fish eat the microplastics, those metals could end up in the fish’s flesh. As you eat the fish, you’re now ingesting those heavy metals.
There’s also the issue of reproduction. A study found that the offspring of fish with high levels of microplastics also had problems with fertility. If this continues happening, it could wipe out entire species of fish.
#5 – Henderson Island
Henderson Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has no human inhabitants. Despite this, experts believe there are more than 37 million plastic fragments littering the island. Crabs have been using some of the plastic pieces as new shells when they outgrow their old shells.
#6 – Human Waste
As you drink water with microplastics or eat contaminated fish, honey, milk, and other products, plastic enters your digestive tract. It eventually comes out in human waste. It goes back to the wastewater treatment plant, where it may end up right back in rivers or oceans.
#7 – The Mariana Trench
The Mariana Trench is the deepest body of water on the earth. Researchers took water samples from the bottom of the trench and found microplastics. In a one-liter sample, thousands of tiny plastic particles were discovered. Researchers allegedly found a plastic bag floating in the water at a depth of 6.8 miles.
#8 – The Pyrenees
Scientists took samples of the air on the French side of the Pyrenees. This European mountain range separates France and Spain and is known for its gorgeous parks and hiking trails. At elevations of 4,500 feet in a remote region, microplastics were found. That equates to over 8/10ths of a mile up the mountain. That may not seem too high in elevation, but the nearest town is 75 miles away.
#9 – Shellfish
Fish are not the only aquatic creatures ingesting microplastics. Shellfish like clams and mussels do, too. When you eat a whole clam, mussel, or oyster, you’re likely ingesting the microplastics. With those microplastics come all of the toxins they’ve been exposed to.
Ecotoxicologist Mark Brown studied blue mussels that were exposed to seawater and microplastics in 2008. Within three days, the plastics moved from the mussels’ digestive systems to their circulatory systems. Even after being transferred to clean water, the plastics remained in the mussels for almost two months.
#10 – Table Salt
With so much plastic in the ocean, it’s probably not surprising to learn that microplastics have been found in table salt. Tiny parts of plastic filament, plastic film, and plastic fragments were found in brands from countries like Australia, France, Japan, New Zealand, and Portugal.
Keep Plastic Out of the Air, Earth, and Water
Everyone needs to do their part. Instead of throwing out plastic bags, recycle them. Consumers need to recycle bubble wrap, plastic grocery bags, garment bags, plastic film, and other plastic packaging materials and bags in designated bins with your local waste district or a grocery store. These bins are often found in the front entrance or bottle return area.
PlasticFilmRecycling.org has an updated list you can refer to for items that are accepted and locations of these bins. The bags must be dry, but many plastics that you might be tempted to throw away, as they’re not accepted in curbside containers, are quickly dropped off during your next shopping trip.
When you shop for items, shop wisely. Avoid buying items that are wrapped in plastic or have plastic bags inside the cardboard packaging. Cereal boxes are an example of this. Choose brands that avoid plastic packaging and rely on wax-lined paper bags instead. Bake your own bread or purchase it from a bakery rather than purchase factory-made bread that comes in plastic packaging.
Invest in a few reusable water bottles and travel cups. Instead of getting a plastic cup at your work’s coffee station, you can refill your travel cup. When shopping for reusable cups, bottles, and other items that contain plastic, look for brands that use recycled plastic. You’re helping support a circular economy by purchasing items made with recycled materials.
Recycle Nation is also happy to help you find your local recycling center. Recycle bottles, cups, and other plastics properly in your curbside bins or at the local recycling center. To find them, enter your location.