Microplastics are extremely small pieces of plastic particles measuring up to five millimeters in size. Present in commercial product development and the breakdown of larger plastics, they include one or a combination of the following polymers: polyethylene, polypropylene, polyvinyl chloride, polyamide, polystyrene, and polyethylene terephthalate.
They can be found in commercial products like cosmetics, clothing, and other textiles. They are also formed from the breakdown of larger plastic items like water bottles caused by exposure to environmental factors like the sun’s radiation and ocean waves.
Commercial products: microplastic particles are used in a range of commercial products including cosmetics, detergents, cleaning products, and paints. They are also used as in-fill materials for artificial sports pitches. These materials are used in some types of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture and animal farms too.
Ocean: there are an increasing number of microplastics present in the ocean. According to the United Nations, there are over 51 trillion microplastic particles in the seas. They risk being ingested by marine animals and these materials are found in many seafood species including various kinds of fish and shellfish.
Food: microplastics end up being consumed by humans through the food chain as research has indicated they have been detected in our food and drink products. They have also been detected in table salt, tap water, and bottled water with on average 325 microplastic particles present in every liter of bottled water.
Air: latest discoveries revealed that microplastics are present in the air and commonly in household dust. This means that many of us are possibly breathing in microplastics daily.
Research has shown that humans are ingesting some form of microplastics in our daily diet. The accumulation of toxins associated with plastics poses a risk to our food safety and public health.
Microplastic accumulation can result in various health issues including inflammatory responses in tissues, cancer, and infertility. Its potential toxicity in our body depends on the size, shape, and polymer type of plastic. The severity also depends on the exposure characteristics, health status, and level of accumulated chemicals.
There is an increasing demand for governments and health authorities to invest more effort in research on the impact and presence of microplastics in our daily lifestyles. When researchers can fully characterize the health and environmental risk that microplastics pose to the people, governments will be able to implement the necessary regulations and controls.
Water management: water management authorities around the world have utilized different technologies and solutions like particle size and shape analyzer technology to characterize the microbeads in the water supply. They can then set thresholds for the presence of microplastics in water, beyond which it would be considered unsafe for drinking or use in agriculture.
Water treatment: research was conducted on the influence of the size and shape of microplastics on their removal efficacy at various stages of water treatment in drinking water treatment plants. It was determined that coagulation/flocculation was not influenced by the size and shape of particles, while consecutive filtration through clay material improved removal of particles larger than 50µm and granular activated carbon improved removal of particles larger than 10µm.
Airborne microplastics: airborne microplastics have been identified in airborne samples collected in the North Atlantic Ocean. Using chemical identification techniques, researchers detected a range of airborne microplastics in the marine environment including polystyrene, polyethylene, polypropylene, and poly-silicone compounds. The presence of nano plastic and microplastic in the marine atmosphere may have implications on the atmospheric composition and may also increase microplastic toxicity due to exposure to UV radiation in the atmosphere that may damage the marine microbial ecology.
Personal care and cosmetic products: research has shown that personal care and cosmetic products may contain 0.5 to five percent microbeads (with an average size of around 250µm). Some general facial cleansing products and toothpaste are also known to be added with microbeads to scrub the skin or exfoliate teeth. Each use of these items may cause around 4,000 to 94,500 microbeads to be released. Some markets have banned the use of these products, in particular rinse-off products.
Given that there are reportedly more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic produced to date, the implications and threats from microplastics are a growing concern that needs to be addressed. As manufacturers and consumers become more aware of the need to reduce, reuse, and recycle plastic, we will see more research being carried out and the introduction of better water-quality control standards.
At DKSH, we can help businesses and manufacturers to identify and manage their products’ ingredients using leading particle characterization techniques. These tools can help to monitor the presence and as such reduce the impact of microplastics in the products we use daily on the environment.
Ruethaitip Tiratrakulvichaya has been with DKSH in Thailand since 2009. As the Application Manager for the Malvern product range, she is responsible for technical and application support across Southeast Asia.
With a background in food science and agroindustry, she is experienced in delivering training to both internal colleagues and external customers on how to operate and obtain the best data.
Ruethaitip has extensive working knowledge in material characterization techniques including laser diffraction, dynamic light scattering, micro-calorimetry, size exclusion chromatography, and morphological property.