Microplastics come from two sources: industrial processes, like microbeads used in some personal care products, or as a by-product of ‘wear and tear’ such as flecks from car tyres or wastewater from laundering certain kinds of clothing. They are, quite literally, everywhere. One 2015 estimate put the number of microplastics floating in surface waters as anywhere from 15 trillion to 51 trillion particles. Recent reports show they are accumulating in the blood of farm animals.
The problem is set to worsen because plastics exist on a continuum, with larger items breaking down into smaller particles over time. “If we could stop all plastics entering the environment tomorrow, we would still see an increase in microplastics over the next decade because of the legacy of plastics that [are] already there as it breaks down,” Professor Richard Thompson OBE, the marine biologist who coined the term microplastics back in 2004, tells Back to Blue.