As we all know by now, plastic is harmful. Not only for the environment but for human health as well. Despite this fact, plastic remains a ubiquitous part of our everyday lives, even though most of us are actively taking steps to avoid it. “How can this be?”, you wonder, “I’ve opted for a reusable water bottle, stainless steel drinking straws, and tote bags for all of my shopping needs!” Although your attempts to help curb the issue do have an impact, the truth of the matter is that plastic comes in many disguises because not all plastic looks, or even feels, like plastic.

Greenpeace UK Head of Oceans and author of How to Give Up Plastic, Will McCallum, explains that “invisible plastics make up a huge proportion of the millions of tonnes of plastic entering into the ocean every year. Whether it’s appearing in unexpected places like the lining of your coffee cup, or being shed from your polyester clothing in the wash – it’s always worth asking the question, is there plastic in this?”

In some, but not all instances, these invisible plastics are what’s considered a microplastic. The term microplasticrefers to small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long which can be harmful to our ocean and aquatic life. Microplastics come from many different sources, including from larger plastic debris that degrades into tiny pieces. In other cases, microbeads are purposely manufactured into very small pieces to be used in health and beauty products. These tiny particles easily pass through water filtration systems and end up in the ocean and lakes, posing a likely threat to aquatic wildlife. Unlike plastic bottles, for example, which can be picked up and disposed of, the spread of microplastics is much more difficult to control.

Where is Invisible Plastic Found

In this week’s post, we’re going to explore some of these common hidden plastics (and microplastics) and give you tips for eliminating them from your life. Below are some of the top culprits.

  1. Our clothes
    • You may be surprised to learn that a high number of clothing are made from plastic. Most clothing contains synthetic fabrics (like polyester or nylon) that are constructed from thin plastic fibers (i.e. microfibers). Stretchy, sweat-wicking workout clothes, water-resistant rainwear, and fleece sweaters are all made of synthetics, and many t-shirts, dresses, and jeans contain a cotton-synthetic blend. Each time they’re washed in a washing machine, synthetic clothing releases microfibers into the environment, posing a daunting environmental challenge.
    • To help combat this issue, shop for clothing made of natural materials like bamboo or cotton.
    • You can also wash your products in a reusable washing bag that collects some of the fibers from each load of laundry, like the one developed by Stop! Micro Waste called the Guppyfriend.
  2. Personal Care Products
    • Microbeads are tiny plastic beads that have made it into a wide range of mainstream beauty products such as face wash, toothpaste, soaps, make-up, disposable wipes, etc.
    • To avoid these types of products, you should check the label to ensure that it does not contain: Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), and Nylon (PA).
    • There are also plenty of personal care products offered in the marketplace today that don’t contain micro-beads. All you have to do is a little bit of research before making a purchase.
    • Last, but not least, you can avoid personal care products that contain micro-beads by making your own home-made soaps, face scrubs, etc.
  3. Tea Bags
    • Almost all store-bought tea bags are sealed with polyethylene and all come in plastic packaging.
    • As an alternative, switch to loose leaf tea and a use a reusable bag, such as the ones offered by Teasenz.
  4. Disposable Coffee Cups
    • Only the majority of a paper cup is actually made from paper. Most disposable cups often also contain a thin plastic lining in order to bind the cup together. Because of the way paper and plastic are stuck together, paper coffee cups are very difficult to recycle. In fact, just one in 400 of them is currently being recycled.
    • Avoiding these is easy – just be sure to carry a reusable coffee mug with you on-the-go, and at home, use real glassware.
  5. Aluminum Cans
    • Drinks cans also contain a thin plastic liner on the inside, usually an epoxy, to stop the beverage from corroding the aluminum. Roughly 80% of epoxy is bisphenol-A (BPA) which has been associated with a myriad of negative health implications.
    • Opt for glass bottled beverages instead to rest easy knowing there’s no plastic in

What We Can Do to Use Less Plastic

These are only some of the many hidden plastics surrounding us in our daily lives. Because it’s so tenacious to the environment, it’s important that we take action to reduce our use of items that are made with plastic. High-income countries, like the U.S., tend to generate more plastic waste per person. In fact, more than 8 billion tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans every year. Additionally, 1 in 3 species of marine mammals have been found entangled in marine litter, and over 90% of all seabirds have plastic pieces in their stomachs.

If you’ve been playing your part in avoiding visible plastics (such as plastic straws, water bottles, and so on), continue to do so! Now, just keep an eye out for products like the ones listed above that contain invisible plastics and/or microplastics. In addition to avoiding plastic, other actions you can take in order to help create a more sustainable future include being more energy efficient at home, composting, biking to work, and choosing an energy supplier that offers environmentally focused energy solutions to power your home (like Kiwi Energy, for example).