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. The media and especially social networks have been talking about it again and again for years: microplastics. The particles are said to be found in cosmetics, clothing and also in our food.
But what exactly is this type of plastic and how harmful is microplastic to us? With so much input, it's easy for us to lose track, so in this article we'll clarify the most important questions on the subject for you and give you practical tips for less plastic in everyday life.
Where does microplastic actually come from and how does it get into the environment?
When carelessly thrown away Plastic bags , bottles or to-go packaging decompose, small plastic parts detach unnoticed. This decomposition is driven by UV radiation from the sun, salt, temperatures or even the friction of waves in bodies of water. As a rule, microplastics are plastic smaller than five millimeters, which makes it not recognizable to humans. The exact values of microplastics in the environment vary considerably depending on the studies, but according to the WWF, the particles are said to make up 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, among other things, by decomposition in chemical and physical processes. Fortunately, a ban on single-use plastic is on the way in the EU, which items this affects and we can already avoid packaging material for you, you can find here .
Unlike secondary microplastics, primary microplastics do not only develop over time, but are already manufactured in their form as such. These include in particular the so-called "base pellets", the basic material for plastic production. When transporting and shipping these, it is not uncommon for parts to accidentally get into the environment.
The main reason for microplastics in the environment is the abrasion of tires on the road, which occurs when braking, accelerating and cornering. The same applies to the abrasion of road markings. When it rains, this is then flushed from the road 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 food or when breathing, whereby the plastic is only partially excreted and can cause damage to the animals' growth and organs, for example.
Fortunately, not all microplastics get into the wastewater unfiltered. In our sewage treatment plants, a part can be easily 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 is largely used as fertilizer on meadows and fields. Since 100% filtering is difficult, some of the microplastics still get into water bodies unfiltered. Although there are always new attempts to improve this filtering, it will probably take some time before a satisfactory solution is found. So now is the moment to act.
Why is there so much microplastic in cosmetics and how can I recognize it?
For several years now, the cosmetics industry has been shaped by reports about plastics in hygiene products such as washing gel, toothpaste, but also cleaning agents. Especially in peelings, the rubbing effect of plastic parts is often used to remove dead skin cells. While the pieces of plastic can be recognized as such in some products, microplastics can also be found in liquid or gel-like form in other jars and tubes, for example as a binding agent - which is difficult for consumers to recognize.
Tracking down microplastics on the drugstore shelf can therefore be a small challenge in itself - but it's worth it! Since, of course, no producer simply writes "microplastic" as an ingredient on the back of their shampoo bottle, you have to study the labels a little more closely to recognize plastic as this. As with food, the same applies here: what is at the front is also the most. With our list you can easily get an overview of cosmetics and other care products. With these terms you unmask microplastics in your bathroom favorites:
- Acrylate Copolymer (AC)
- Acrylate Crosspolymer (ACS)
- 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)
- Polyurethane (PUR)
We admit that with so many technical terms, it is easy to get lost and, as already indicated, the analysis of the ingredients can take some time. But fortunately there is nothing here that the 21st century cannot 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 to you right away.
You can also scan products with the “Replace Plastic” app, and the manufacturer will then be informed that you want plastic-free packaging for them. There is hope that more and more companies in the cosmetics and cleaning industry want to do without microplastics in their products in the coming years, but caution is still required - transparency is not at the top of the list of responsibilities when it comes to this topic.
What else does microplastic contain and how can I avoid it?
Right at the top of microplastic consumption: artificial turf. The plastic, which is used as bedding material, can be carried into the environment through shoes and clothing by athletes or by the wind. When the clothes are washed, the plastic particles can then get into the sewage system. Speaking of shoes, even sports shoes with plastic soles can release particles into the environment through abrasion. Natural rubber soles are an environmentally friendly alternative.
Microplastics can also be found in clothing. Synthetic material such as fleece fabric can lose its fibers when washed, which then end up in the sewage system. This can be remedied by special laundry bags that collect the fibers and are easy to clean after washing. There are also some fleece fabrics made from organic cotton these days. In general, the following applies to washing: If possible, not too often and not with a half-full machine, because the fibers are damaged with every wash cycle and can thus get into the waste water unhindered. If organic clothing is too expensive for you, the most sustainable alternative here, if unavoidable, is once again the good old second-hand purchase. We show you how to shop for second-hand clothing online in an environmentally friendly way here summarized for you in our blog article.
As the main source of the microplastic problem, doing without or reducing car journeys can also help to improve it. Particularly heavy cars cause more abrasion, so the next time you buy a car, it is definitely worth taking a look at the weight class from an environmental point of view. Also (greetings from the theory test!) the correct tire pressure, the position of the wheels and the right change between winter and summer tires play a role in wear. At best, don't race across the streets at high speed too often.
As already indicated, microplastics are also found in our food and, unfortunately not surprisingly, also in the air. It is particularly dangerous here that other environmental toxins such as pesticides can easily accumulate on the particles.
Back to food: chewing gum in particular contains plastics made from petroleum, so the classic break is not biodegradable. It can take up to five years to decompose, so simply spitting it on the sidewalk is neither a good nor a sustainable (and hygienic) idea.
Opinions are still divided on the amounts of microplastics found in other foods and which products are particularly contaminated. It is assumed, however, that the plastic mainly gets into food via the environment. The cycle here: Small creatures absorb the particles on the water surface, are eaten by fish and mussels, which in turn are on the menu for 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 should play a role in the transmission. Even with coated pans, plastic particles can detach and get into the food. Alternatives made of iron can therefore be an environmentally friendly solution for fried eggs, pancakes and the like.
How can I use less plastic in everyday life?
Avoiding plastic can be extremely difficult, as we know all too well. But there are a few simple everyday tricks that you can use to easily reduce your plastic consumption:
The be-all and end-all when it comes to (plastic) waste is still the separation of the waste. After all, the probability that waste that has been properly disposed of and, ideally, correctly separated, will not end up in the environment is a lot higher. Here we have already summarized how to separate your waste correctly.
Fortunately, when it comes to cosmetics and care products, there are already some alternatives in your favorite drugstore. Natural cosmetics almost exclusively do without microplastics and usually even advertise with them. If in doubt, a look at the label or a scan with the app will of course help. Alternatively, you can also make many products such as toothpaste, peelings and detergent at home yourself, the Internet has some recipes ready for this.
And when it comes to shopping, too, the solution is so close at hand: we think the plastic bag has had its day once and for all. Shirt bags for fruit and vegetables? Fresh net is announced! For the price of a double pack, you will eat one less cucumber next time, but buy the next but one sustainably from now on! And cloth bags, rucksacks or the fashionable Porsche Hack when you go shopping for the week are sustainable alternatives that are easily worth the investment. As of today, shopping in bulk stores no longer allows excuses like “the tomatoes were only made of plastic”. If you don't want to do without a plastic bag in your everyday life, we can do it for you our #IAMPLASTICFREE bags recommend, which have almost 1:1 the same properties as a classic plastic bag, just without being made of plastic.
Of course, the best and most sustainable solution is still to avoid plastic wherever possible. For example, fewer pellets have to be produced, which can also pollute the environment. Buying bulky goods and also giving preference to plastic-free products are a start here. We'll tell you how you can easily save some plastic in your kitchen here .
How dangerous is microplastic really for humans?
The (unsatisfactory) truth: Even more recent studies have not produced any results that can answer this question in general. Although no major health consequences for humans have yet (!) been proven, we should all regularly reconsider our plastic consumption simply out of respect for the environment. Because even if you like to forget it, but it's not called that for nothing.
Out of consideration for the world that surrounds us, we should simply heed a few life hacks in everyday life and the next time we go to the supermarket and drugstore. We will certainly not get rid of microplastics in all areas overnight, but as always we want to discourage you from taking small steps forward. So, the good old freshness bag in your backpack is the first step, downloading a really useful app number two and saving money for shopping is the third step, deal?