Microtrash:  Little Bits, Big problem

What do these things have in common?

  • bottle caps
  • cosmetics
  • cigarette butts
  • your favorite no-iron shirt
  • water bottle labels
  • your favorite polarfleece blankie
  • upholstered furniture
  • automobile tires

They all create microtrash that endangers wildlife, our waterways, and our unique ecosystem.

All those little bits of paper from torn-off wrappers, plastic bags that got away from you, or bottle caps you didn't notice dropping are having a huge impact on our environment. Natural scavengers and curious birds are attracted to little pieces of colorful or shiny trash that show up against the natural landscape. They seek out and consume microtrash, which cannot be digested properly, sometimes taking microtrash back to their nest for their chicks. This microtrash can then become lodged in the gastrointestinal tract of the chicks, which can prevent the birds from digesting food, ultimately resulting in starvation and death.

Carpet and upholstery and your favorite polarfleece blankie contain microplastic fibers which are released to float around in the air. Likewise automobile tires release tiny bits of synthetic rubber every time you drive, accounting for as much as 28 percent of microplastics in the ocean. Microbeads, very tiny pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic, are added as exfoliants to health and beauty products, such as some cleansers and toothpastes. Microplastic fibers are released in the wash, too, when synthetic clothes and polafleece blankies are washed. These tiny particles easily pass through water filtration systems and also end up in the ocean and waterways.

Plastics don't decompose, they break down into smaller and smaller bits and eventually get into our waterways, and are ingested by marine animals, becoming more and more concentrated as you go up the food chain.With the population of Orcas declining rapidly and several species of salmon becoming endangered, this is of special concern to those in the Puget Sound region. And, don't forget about the fish we eat ourselves!

To learn more about the effects of microplastics and microtrash, check out these great resources:

How you can reduce microtrash

Now that we know microtrash is a mega problem, what can we do to reduce it? There are plenty of actions we can take, ranging from prevention to litter cleanup. Most importantly, each and every one of us need to be mindful of the products we use and what gets left behind.

  • Dispose of waste properly. Plan ahead by bringing food and beverages along that are easy to clean up. Avoid glass bottles that can shatter easily. Always prepare for full trash cans or dumpsters and have a plan to store garbage.
  • Bring Your Own BAG! Keep a bag on hand so that you can clean up trash. Pack out your own trash, and if you have safety equipment like gloves and hand sanitizer, clean up any other trash you see as well.
  • Drink water from your tap. Drinking water is one of the biggest contributors to microplastic ingestion, but bottled water has about double the microplastic level of tap water.
  • Don’t heat food in plastic. Heated plastics have been known to leach chemicals into food. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends not putting plastic into your dishwasher.
  • Avoid plastic food containers with known issues. The recycling codes 3, 6, and 7 respectively indicate the presence of phthalates, styrene and bisphenols. If these products are labeled as “biobased” or “greenware,” they do not contain bisphenols.
  • Eat more fresh food. Though the levels of microplastics in fresh produce have been largely untested, these products are less likely to expose you to unwanted chemicals.
  • Do the wash on cold. Heat is not good for fabrics. It can easily damage the threads, which then split and release microfibers
  • Fill up your washing machine. There is less friction when the entire washing machine is full, so less fibers are likely to break off.
  • Use a laundry ball or filter. Toss a laundry ball into your wash to remove microfibers from washing away with your laundry load or install a filter outside your laundry machine with the same goal in mind. They capture 26% or 87% of microfibers respectively.
  • Use liquid detergent. Powder detergents act as scrubs, and can scrub off fibers.
  • Hang dry or dry on low. Of course, hang drying would be the best option, but if you live in a small space, that can be difficult to do with every load. The low setting helps lessen the friction between clothes.
  • Buy natural fibers. Clothing made from natural fibers like cotton, linen, hemp and wool, aren’t going to shed microplastics into the wash. Check the content on the tag before purchasing.
  • Use public transport, and favor rail infrastructure