Microplastic and its effects on people and the environment: how dangerous the plastic particles really are for us

Mikroplastik und seine Auswirkungen auf Mensch und Umwelt: Wie gefährlich die Kunststoff-Teilchen für uns wirklich sind

We immediately identify the transparent water bottles in the supermarket as plastic, but plastic also occurs in our environment in another form that is not visible to the naked eye. In the media and especially in social networks, people have been talking about it again and again for years: Microplastics. The particles are said to be found in cosmetics, in clothing and also in our food.

But what exactly is this kind of plastic and how harmful is microplastic for us? With so much input, we also quickly lose the overview, so we clarify for you in this article the most important questions around the topic and give you on top practical tips for less plastic in everyday life.

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Where does microplastic actually come from and how does it get into the environment?

When carelessly discarded plastic bags, bottles or to-go packaging decompose, small pieces of plastic come off unnoticed. This decomposition is driven by UV radiation from the sun, salt, temperatures or even friction from waves in bodies of water. Microplastics are usually plastics smaller than five millimeters, which makes them undetectable to humans. The exact levels of microplastics in the environment vary considerably depending on the studies, but according to the WWF, the particles are said to account for three-quarters of the plastic in our environment. Incidentally, in the case of the examples mentioned at the beginning, researchers speak of "secondary microplastics," which are created by decomposition in chemical and physical processes, among other things. Fortunately, a ban on single-use plastic is on the way in the EU, which items this affects and how you can already avoid packaging material, you can find here.

Unlike secondary microplastics, primary microplastics are not created over time, but are already produced in their form as such. This includes in particular the so-called "base pellets", the basic material for plastic production. When these are transported and shipped, it is not uncommon for parts to accidentally end up in the environment.

However, the main cause of microplastics in the environment is the abrasion of tires on the road, which occurs during braking, acceleration and cornering. The same applies to the abrasion of road markings. When it rains, this is then washed off the roadway into the sewage system or directly into the environment, so that sooner or later it ends up in our oceans via the water cycle. Marine life, birds and other animals then ingest this microplastic with their food or when breathing, whereby the plastic is only partially excreted again and can, for example, cause damage to the growth and organs of the animals.

Fortunately, not all microplastics enter the wastewater completely unfiltered. In our wastewater treatment plants, some of it can be well separated. However, the filtered microplastic is not simply destroyed: It ends up in the sewage sludge and is either thermally disposed of with it or a large part of it ends up as fertilizer on meadows and fields. Since 100% filtration is difficult, some microplastics still end up unfiltered in bodies of water. There are always new attempts to improve this filtration, but it will probably take some time for a satisfactory solution. Therefore, now is the moment to act.

Autos im Stau auf der Autobahn

Why is there so much microplastic in cosmetics and how can I recognize it?

For several years now, the image of the cosmetics industry has been dominated by reports of plastics in hygiene products such as washing gel, toothpaste, but also cleansing products. Particularly in peelings, the rubbing effect of plastic parts is often used to remove dead skin cells. While in some products the plastic pieces are recognizable as such, microplastics can also be found in other jars and tubes in liquid or gel form, for example as a binding agent - which is difficult for consumers to recognize.

Tracking down microplastics in the drugstore shelf can therefore be a bit of a challenge in itself - but it's worth it! Since, of course, no producer simply writes "microplastic" as an ingredient on the back of his shampoo bottle, you have to study the labels a bit more closely to recognize plastic as such. As with food, the same applies here: What's on the front is what's in it the most. Our list makes it easy for you to see through cosmetics and other care products. Use these labels to unmask microplastics in your bathroom favorites:

  • Acrylate Copolymer (AC)
  • Acrylate Crosspolymer (ACS)
  • Dimethiconol
  • Methicone
  • Polyamides (PA, Nylon)
  • Polyacrylates (PA)
  • Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)
  • Polyquaternium (PQ)
  • Polyethylene (PE)
  • Polyethylene glycol (PEG)
  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
  • Polypropylene (PP)
  • Polypropylene glycol (PPG)
  • Polystyrene (PS)
  • Polyurethanes (PUR)
  • Siloxanes
  • Silsesquioxane

We admit that it's easy to lose track of so many technical terms, and as already indicated, analyzing the ingredients can take some time. But fortunately, there's nothing the 21st century can't solve with an app: "Code Check" or "Beat the Micro Bead" work with barcode scanners and check cosmetics, but also food, for microplastics. In the best case, they can even suggest an alternative product.

You can also scan products with the "Replace Plastic" app, which then notifies manufacturers that you would like to see plastic-free packaging for them. The fact that more and more companies in the cosmetics and cleaning industry are planning to do without microplastics in their products in the coming years is a source of hope, but caution is still called for - transparency is not at the top of the responsibility list when it comes to this issue.

Frau trägt Gesichtspflege auf die Hand auf

What else contains microplastics and how can I avoid them?

Right at the top of microplastic consumption: artificial turf. The plastic, which is used as a bedding material, can be carried into the environment through shoes and clothing worn by athletes or even by the wind. When the clothes are washed, the plastic particles can then enter the wastewater. Speaking of shoes, athletic shoes with plastic soles can also release particles into the environment through abrasion. Soles made of natural rubber are an environmentally friendly alternative.

Clothing can also contain microplastics. Synthetic materials such as fleece can lose their fibers when washed, which then end up in the wastewater. This can be remedied by special wash bags that collect the fibers and are simply cleaned after washing. There are also some organic cotton fleece fabrics available today. The general rule when washing is: If possible, not too often and not with the machine half full, because with each wash cycle the fibers are damaged and can thus enter the waste water unhindered. For those who find organic clothing too expensive, the most sustainable alternative, if unavoidable, is once again the good old second-hand purchase. How you can store online for second-hand clothing in an environmentally friendly way, we have summarized for youhere in our blog article.

As the main source of the microplastic problem, avoiding or reducing car journeys can also help to improve the situation. Particularly heavy cars cause more abrasion, so it's definitely worth taking a look at the weight class when you next buy a car from an environmental point of view. The correct tire pressure, the position of the wheels and the appropriate change between winter and summer tires also play a role in abrasion. At best, you also don't race across the roads at high speeds too often.

As already indicated, microplastics are also found in our food and, unfortunately not surprisingly, also in the air. What is particularly dangerous here is that other environmental toxins such as pesticides can easily attach themselves to the particles.

Back to food: chewing gum in particular contains plastics that are made from petroleum, which means that this classic snack is not biodegradable. It takes up to five years for it to decompose, so simply spitting it onto the sidewalk is neither a good nor a sustainable (and hygienic) idea.

Opinions are still divided on the quantities of microplastics found in other foods and which products are particularly contaminated. However, it is assumed that the plastic enters the food primarily via the environment. The cycle is as follows: Small creatures pick up the particles on the surface of the water and are eaten by fish and mussels, which in turn are eaten by birds and humans. Plastic bottles of mineral water are also suspected of releasing particles directly into the water. In addition, the cleaning of the bottles is said to play a role in the transmission. Plastic particles can also detach from coated pans and get into the food. So for fried eggs, pancakes and co, alternatives made of iron can be an environmentally friendly solution.

Voller Wäschekorb mit Kleidung aus Synthetik

How can I use less plastic in everyday life?

Avoiding plastic can be extremely difficult, as we ourselves unfortunately know too well. But there are a few simple tricks you can use in everyday life to reduce your plastic consumption:

The be-all and end-all when it comes to (plastic) waste is still the separation of waste. The probability that properly disposed of and, at best, correctly separated waste will not end up in the environment is much higher. Here we have already summarized how to separate your waste properly.

Fortunately, there are already some alternatives for cosmetics and care products in your favorite drugstore. Natural cosmetics do almost exclusively without microplastics and usually even obviously advertise it. In case of doubt, a look at the label or a scan with the app can help. Alternatively, you can also make many products such as toothpaste, scrubs and detergents yourself at home; the Internet has a number of recipes for this.

And when it comes to shopping, the solution is so close: we think the plastic bag has had its day once and for all. Shirt bags for fruit and vegetables? Fresh net is the order of the day! For the price of a double pack, you'll eat one less cucumber next time, but buy the next but one sustainably from now on! And even cloth bags, backpacks or the fashionable Hackenporsche for weekly shopping are sustainable alternatives that are easily worth the investment. From now on, shopping in unpacked stores will no longer allow excuses like "the tomatoes were only available in plastic". If you do not want to do without a plastic bag in your everyday life, we can recommendour #IAMPLASTICFREE Bags , which have almost 1:1 the same properties as a classic plastic bag, but without being made of plastic.

Of course, the best and most sustainable solution is still to do without plastic where possible. For example, there is less need to produce pellets, which can cause additional pollution to the environment. Shopping at unpacked stores and also preferring plastic-free products are already a start here. How you can also easily save some plastic in your kitchen, we tell youhere .

Verschiedene Cornflakes- und Müslisorten in Einmachgläsern

How dangerous is microplastic really for humans?

The (unsatisfactory) truth: Even recent studies have not yet produced any results that can provide a general answer to this question. Although no major health effects on humans have yet (!) been proven, we should all regularly reconsider our plastic consumption out of respect for the environment alone. Because even if one forgets it gladly times, however evenly this is not called in vain so.

Out of consideration for the world that surrounds us, we should simply take some life hacks to heart in everyday life and the next time we go shopping in the supermarket and drugstore. We certainly won't get rid of microplastics in all areas overnight, but as always, we want to encourage you here to take small steps forward. So, the good old freshness net in your backpack is the first step, the download of a really useful app number two and saving money for shopping on the side the third, deal?

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