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What Are Microplastics and How Are They Impacting Our Water, Food, and Air?

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What are microplastics and what impact do microplastics in our oceans have on our planet and our health? Find out what microplastics are, how they are made, and what you can do to reduce them. 

I primarily focus on food on this site, but in general, everything relates to improving wellness and health in a natural way. Preventative health tweaks like eating real food and using natural beauty products allow us to live our fullest lives.

And in that vein today I’m talking microplastics infiltrating our water and air and eventually getting into our food! We’ll talk about what’s happening, why it matters, and what you can do to help fix it!

I feel privileged to live next to the mountain springs and national parks of the Rockies. For the most part, we have clean fresh water to drink and play in, but that’s not the case for everyone. And the water and air here aren’t nearly as clean as I thought they were!

Clean water not only means you can drink it in peace, but also so you can enjoy playing in it whether that is surfing in Nicaragua, conquering scorpion pose on the beach, or paddleboarding in mountain lakes.

More importantly, it means that our vegetables, plants, animals, and ourselves are plastic-free.

Microplastics in our Water Ways

Looking at health holistically goes beyond just choosing organic veggies, wild-caught salmon, and aluminum-free deodorant. We rely on a clean environment and water for so much: good soil, healthy plants and animals, and of course to stay hydrated.

But we also kind of assume clean water when we are out surfing, swimming, or SUPing. And for that matter, when we are pouring from the tap into our glass. But as we’ve seen in certain parts of the country, we can’t always trust our water is of high quality.

I can tell you before this week, I didn’t realize there could be tons of microplastic in the waters around me when I jumped into this ocean. And I didn’t know much about how landlocked farmlands impact ocean waters.

YouTube video

Microplastics in the Ocean

I recently read about Lizzie Carr’s Stand up Paddle across the English channel to collect water samples for testing of microplastics.

In each sample, she found over two types of plastic originating from places far from the shores.

I think there’s this perception that the problem with trash is because of the people living near the coasts… but it floats in from across the globe.

These micro pieces of plastic are broken down into tiny pieces not visible to the human eye. Because of that, it’s hard to see just how bad it is and how it is impacting our world.

How do Oceanic Microplastics Affect Wildlife?

Our fish swim and eat in that polluted ocean and marine life have been found with plastics in their digestive tracks.

Imbibed plastics leads to chemical additives or hydrophobic waterborne pollutants depositing in the marine muscle tissue, which can eventually be ingested by and negatively impact larger animals and eventually humans.

And while this particular plastic SUP adventure was in England, microplastics can be found in our U.S. waterways, too.

Want to reduce plastics?

The Gulf Dead Zone

A little closer to home, fishermen experience a “fishing drought” in springtime.  I’m talking about the dead zone in the gulf.

The problem seems to be correlated with runoff from conventional agriculture flowing into the Mississippi River.

Many of the pesticides and fertilizers are not absorbed into the soil and run off into our rivers, eventually making their way to the lakes, marshes, and oceans. Not only is excess phosphate really hard to recover once lost to the sea, the runoff makes an uninhabitable zone for sea life.

The nitrogen and phosphorus create algae blooms that reduce oxygen and inhibit other marine life. This negatively impacts our seafood chain and tourism, like scuba diving, because there is no marine life to see. 

This impacts our health because it reduces access to wild fish and leads to impaired health and nutrition of those fish when we do eat them.

Why the water matters to me (and should to you, too!)

Water has always been a big part of my life. Since a young girl, I felt a pull towards the ocean and tried to spend as much time as possible in the water, which was a challenge in dry Colorado.

But living in Colorado, where natural water is sparse, I learned how valuable it is. And there’s not a much better way to spend a weekend than paddling around the mountain lakes and reservoirs. I hate to think of how those waters will look if we continue on the same path.

Plastic Dust in the Air!

This is pervasive. The plastic particles are found in the air as plastic dust in many of our national parks.

That dust can land in waterways, sucked up into plant’s xylem, in our lungs, on the dirt, on animals, on plants that animals lick and eat and eventually back into us.

Microplastics in our Food

Above I mentioned that microplastics are found in marine tissue and bio-accumulate in larger amounts in larger sea animals. That means plastic can exist in unnacceptable levels in larger fish that we may eventually eat as food.

It’s not just us! Other animals, including land animals like bears, eat fish that have this plastic imbedded in their tissue. In turn, those animals have plastic in their flesh. We do not yet know the health risks of plastic embedded in our bodies, but it can’t be great.

It’s even in our Vegetables!

Previously, we believed that plastic molecules were too large to absorb into plants. However, recent studies show that certain microplastics can indeed absorb with water into the xylem of plants and then embed into the plant tissues.

Carrots, apples, and lettuce can all have plastic particles inside them when we eat them!

This bioaccumulates in our bodies and in other animals bodies

Again, it doesn’t just impact us, humans. All animals that eat this plastic infected food will end up eating plastic and potentially having that plastic bioaccumulate and lodge into their own flesh.

If it is a cow or a chicken or a pig that eats those plants and then we eat those animals, we are potentially eating even larger amounts of plastics!

This is a pervasive problem and could have large reaching consequences on health.

Eco-friendly is often health-conscious

Something that is unique in beauty and body care products, in general, is transparency in ingredients. Learning the different ingredients and how they impact your body and the earth is overwhelming.

But if you’re going to use a product every day, you kind of want to know what’s in it.

I love when companies list out all of their ingredients and explain how they were derived and why they chose to include them in their products.  For brands that don’t have that, try checking out the Environmental Working Group as they provide ratings for many products.

Very cool.

What Can You Do?

It’s basically about reducing plastics in your life, supporting companies that also reduce plastics, and voting for bills and representatives that support institutions to uphold the clean air and water acts.

Specific actions you can take to prevent plastic pollution

You can reduce plastic and purchase your items from companies that have better packaging.

You can also be an advocate and call your favorite companies and encourage them to switch to more sustainable packaging.

Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done. There are plenty of companies that are using sustainable and compostable materials like paper or mushroom-based foam.

What about the damage that has already been done?

There’s already a significant amount of pollution from our excessive plastic use, and it’s on the rise.

Everything we do as consumers helps keep that problem from growing, so keep on reducing your single-use plastics and switching to bar soap!

But on a larger scale, we need some cleanup. In addition to preventing further cleanup – consider donating to local and global organizations that reduce litter.

Overflowing plastic bags of trash with plastic spilling out all over the beach
Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

10 ways to improve your impact on our waterways

  1. Stop buying plastic bottles of water. Buy a water filter and a reusable metal water bottle
  2. Stop using cling wrap! Instead use silicone food wraps, cloth covers, or beeswax food wraps
  3. Support Companies with Sustainable Packaging. Start buying products from companies with sustainable packaging: see Thrive Marketplace, Ten Tree Clothing, and Seed Prebiotic, and Probiotic. (I’m a Seed affiliate)
  4. Change your toothpaste: Ever since I decided to detox my bathroom routine, I’ve been a fan of natural toothpaste, and my favorite brand so far is Tom’s of Maine. I like that I can find it in most stores, they have travel size, they offer toothpaste tube recycling, and they give a non-fluoride option that isn’t full of artificial sweeteners.  I think that starting and ending your day with a jolt of sweetness trains your taste buds to expect more sweetness. And I’m trying to reduce added sugars, so why not start with something I use twice a day?
  5. Switch to bar soap: I’m taking out the liquid pumps and putting bars of soap in the bathrooms, especially the guest bathroom that people use when they visit. There are all sorts of beautiful hand-made soaps available these days and this uses less plastic than the liquid soap.
  6. Ditch the detergents: Most soaps are actually detergents, which don’t break down as well and can harm the waterways. It’s easy to prevent harmful detergents from entering our water streams by using Castille soaps or bar soaps instead.
  7. Buy fewer synthetic fabrics: Many synthetic fabrics are made out of microplastics some of these plastic fibers are released in the washer machine. Look for natural fibers like linen, organic cotton, and hemp. Avoid synthetics like nylon, spandex, and clothes made of recycled plastic bottles. When you are washing synthetics, turn down the spin cycle and wash time to minimize the release of microfibers.
  8. Filter Microplastics from your Laundry: Synthetic fibers bleed out synthetic plastic fibers into the water when they are washed. I know many of us own leggings or clothes made from recycled plastic water bottles. If we don’t do anything, then tiny little fibers leak back out into the water and might end up in our food and our bodies. Instead, trap them! Try this Cora MicroFiber Ball.
  9. Reduce your single-use plastics: these means water bottles, take out food, plastic forks, coffee cups, and everything else that we dispose of. Invest in metal water bottles, reusable straws, travel silverware, and travel coffee mugs. Read more here: 9 tips for less waste.
  10. Reduce Chemicals in Other Places of Your Home: Our cookware, cleaning supplies, and beauty products can have harmful ingredients that can cause problems for not only our waterways but also our health. Look for brands with cleaner ingredients lists that make products safe for oceans.

About Alicia

I love cooking almost as much as I love eating so I try to make sure I feel good about what I'm eating. I believe it's always a good occasion for some bubbly and I also love feeling healthy and being outdoors. I try to buy, cook and eat whole nutritious foods that promote a fun active lifestyle.

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