What Are Microplastics?

gloved hands holding microplastics that have been picked up from the beach

If you've been paying attention to the news in recent years, you've probably heard about the dangers of microplastics. But what are they, where do they come from, and why should we be concerned? In this post, we'll explain what microplastics are and why they're a problem—plus, we'll offer some tips on how to avoid them. Stay safe out there!

What is Microplastic and Why Is It Harmful?

Years back, our friends and partners at 5 Gyres first identified and gave name to what we’ve come to know as microplastics through years of rigorous study and research. We have worked with 5 Gyres since 2012, advocating together for restoring healthy, plastic-free oceans. A number of our staff have joined crews of like-minded activists, scientists, and ocean lovers on multiple 5 Gyres expeditions to collect plastic, bolster legislation, inspire young minds, and spread the word about the severe damage caused by plastic in our oceans and waterways.

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that measure less than 5 millimeters in length. They're often used in cosmetics and other personal care products, like exfoliating scrubs or toothpaste. Microplastics can also come from larger pieces of plastic that break down over time due to weathering or sunlight exposure. Because of this, there are literally tons of microplastics in the oceans, our personal care products, and even in our food.

No matter how they're formed, microplastics and plastic debris are a big problem for the environment. Here's why:

  • Microplastics pollute our waterways. Because microplastics are so small, they can easily travel through our drainage systems and end up in our lakes, rivers, and oceans. There, they pollute the water and harm marine life. Studies have shown that microplastics can absorb toxins like pesticides and industrial chemicals, which can then be passed on to the animals that ingest them. As a result, microplastics are a serious threat to the food chain—including humans.
  • Microplastics negatively impact wildlife. In addition to polluting waterways, microplastics can also have a direct impact on land-dwelling animals. Birds, for instance, often mistake microplastics for food and feed them to their chicks. This can lead to malnourishment or even starvation. And because plastics take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to break down, the problem is only getting worse. Every year, millions of tons of plastic are produced and disposed of—and much of it ends up in the environment.
  • Microplastics are difficult to clean up. Once microplastics enter the environment, they're extremely difficult to remove. Because they're so light, they can easily travel long distances through wind and water currents. As a result, cleaning up microplastics is a daunting task—one that requires a global effort.
Jeff Cresswell with 5 Gyres team picking up microplastics on the beach

Klean Kanteen owner Jeff Cresswell with 5 Gyres team

How Can You Avoid Microplastics?

The best way to avoid microplastics is to avoid purchasing products that contain them. When you're shopping, look for products that are labeled "microbead-free" or “biodegradable” (and of course, be mindful of what biodegradable actually means). You can also look for products that come in recyclable packaging. And when you're done using a product, be sure to recycle it properly so that it doesn't end up in the environment.

Not only can you refuse to buy items that contain microbeads, but you can also prevent the creation of microplastics that occurs when larger plastics are broken down by weathering. This can be accomplished simply by forgoing the purchase of single-use plastic containers, and the most obvious way to do that is to replace your beverage bottles and food containers with items that will last you a long time.

Klean Kanteen bottles are made from certified 90% post-consumer recycled 18/8 stainless steel, ensuring that every bottle you buy will stand the test of time without negatively impacting the environment the way single-use plastics do.