How do plastics end up in the environment?
All plastics break down over time and eventually become microplastics. Microplastics are also released as plastics wear down from use. Many microplastics end up in the environment as litter falls apart, but plastics are also used in products you might not think of – in car tyres, paint and textiles, for example. Fleece, acrylic and polyester are all fabrics made of plastics. The wear and weathering of tyres and paint and the laundering of clothes releases large amounts of microplastics. Those tiny particles end up in the air, the water and the soil.
The main causes of microplastics in the environment are litter that has fallen apart and tyre, textile and paint wear and weathering.
How does this affect the environment?
Plastics are poorly biodegradable or not biodegradable at all. As a result, they build up and spread in the environment. This can affect the whole ecosystem. Larger pieces can get stuck in animals’ guts or cause them to choke. For example, this can happen when seagulls eat plastics that look like food.
Tiny plastic particles also affect plants and animals – not only small aquatic creatures and algae, but also larger ones, such as mussels and fish. From what we know now, plastic particles may affect breathing, movement and food absorption. Because smaller plastic particles end up in water and are ingested by both small and large animals, they can also be passed on through the food chain.
Assessing the risks of plastics
It is difficult to assess the risks of plastics. We need more data about different types of plastics in the environment. For example:
What is the composition of those plastics?
- How large are the particles?
- What kinds of micro-organisms adhere to plastic?
- Which specific microplastics is the environment exposed to, and to what extent?
How can we measure plastics in the environment?
The Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management monitors the amount of litter in the Netherlands, both on land and in waste that washes ashore. Much of this litter contains plastics. So far, no good method exists to measure the amount of microplastics in the soil comprehensively.
On the other hand, the Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management is developing a method to measure microplastics in surface water. There is also a special filter that can be used to count microplastics in air samples and calculate their weight. The Netherlands is not yet doing this on a national scale.
You can read more about measuring and counting litter at Rijkswaterstaat.nl (in Dutch).
How can we keep plastics out of the environment?
- Prevent litter.
- Keep car tyres at the correct pressure.
- Launder clothes as little as possible.
- Do not use cosmetics and other care products that contain microplastics.