Plastic is ubiquitous. We use it to store our food and fabricate our utensils. It’s the basis of everything from our toys, to our electronics, and even our cosmetics. We also produce tiny “microbeads” of plastics for use as exfoliants in soap and cleansers. The small plastic debris that degrades off of larger plastic materials, along with these microbeads, are what turn into microplastics.

Microplastics, smaller than five millimeters long, slip through water filtration systems and find their way into our lakes, waterways, and oceans, harming aquatic life. Because plastic doesn’t degrade, unlike biodegradable waste, it continues to break down into smaller and smaller pieces.

While microplastics are small, the problems they cause are big and complex. To solve this critical problem, we need to bring a more nuanced perspective to how we think about plastic. Let’s dive in.

Rethinking Our Plastic Problem

Do you worry that every piece of plastic you use eventually ends up in the ocean? It’s not that simple in all cases, but unfortunately there is a significant amount of plastics that ends up in the world’s waterways. With the right waste collection and recycling processes in place, it’s possible to have plastic avoid this fate. Ideally, we all need to aim for a world where plastics are kept in the circular economy and out of the waste stream and our waterways.

Plastic and microplastics in our waterways and oceans is a major problem—and it’s a complicated one. How plastic makes its way to the water depends on how effective and successful location- and country-specific collection systems are, as well as if consumers are careless or careful about their plastic waste.

The Current State of Microplastics

The concentrations of microplastics in the ocean, previously estimated at as high as 50 trillion pieces, are now being revisited. Many experts now believe those initial numbers are far too low. A closer approximation is as high as 125 trillion. That’s a scary number.

And these microplastics are harming aquatic life. Marine life mistakes microplastics for small organisms they rely on for food; they also ingest the plastic simply by breathing. These microplastics are made of harmful chemicals—they can transport dangerous pathogens which can affect entire coral reefs and aquatic ecosystems, and they can increase bacterial oxygen consumption and decrease CO2 uptake by phytoplankton.

So what can we do about this big issue?

How to Tackle the Major Microplastic Problem

There are many tools we can use to help improve how we capture recyclable plastics and prevent them from entering our precious waterways. These tools include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Better product design for recyclability: Designing a product for recyclability is key so when a consumer recycles a product, it can make its way smoothly through the current recycling infrastructure and be used as a future feedstock for new products.
  • Improved labeling: Products use the Resin Identification Code (RIC)—those numbers you see on plastic products and packaging—but the RIC isn’t as user-friendly as it could be. There are efforts to improve labeling for all products, including plastics, to make it easier for consumers to recycle their products. One example is the How2Recycle label system that aims to create more standardization in labeling for recycling different products.
  • Improved sortation for different plastics at the MRF: A materials recovery facility (MRF) is a facility that separates and prepares single-stream recycling materials. It’s a key component of a city’s residential and commercial single-stream recycling program. A MRF’s efficacy can be reduced by contamination from consumer error, extremely small plastic pieces, or limited ability to sort different types of plastics. By investing in improved sortation for different plastics, a MRF can more successfully and accurately sort and recycle more types of plastic, keeping them out of landfills and preventing them from becoming microplastics infesting our waterways.
  • Increased demand for post-consumer recycled resin: Post-consumer recycled resin, also known as PCR resin, is made from recycled plastic. It’s a sustainable way to create plastic materials like bottles and containers. If more manufacturers used PCR resin—and more consumers bought from companies that used PCR resin—then less virgin plastic would be used to create plastic materials. As brands commit to using recycled content in their products, demand for PCR resin will increase. You can learn more about sustainable packaging options here.
  • Increased consumer education: Along with systemic improvements and larger structural changes to plastic recycling and manufacturing, it’s important for consumers to understand how they can help play a part in the microplastics problem—and that starts with education to know what kinds of plastics can be accepted in your recycling program and how to keep contamination low. If you’re interested in learning more about how you can do your part and recycle plastic properly, check out more of Rubicon’s resources. For example, you can check out Back to Basics: Recycling 101 for tips on recycling at home or read about how to reduce and recycle plastic at your business.

Microplastics are plaguing our waters—and there’s no simple solution. But with dedication, innovation, and a nuanced perspective, we can tackle the problem, make recycling plastic easier and more effective, and protect our oceans and marine life.

Meredith Leahy is a Circular Economy Senior Manager at Rubicon. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.