Microplastics are small pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long that can be harmful to our ocean and our aquatic life.
Plastic is the most common type of marine debris found in our ocean and the Great Lakes. Plastic waste can have all shapes and sizes, but those that are less than five millimeters in length (or about the size of a sesame seed) are called “microplastics“.
As an emerging field of study, not much is yet known about microplastics and their impacts. The NOAA Marine Waste Program leads the efforts within NOAA to investigate this issue. Standardized field methods have been developed to collect samples of microplastics from sediments, sand and surface waters and continue to undergo testing. Finally, the field and laboratory protocols will allow global comparisons of the amount of microplastics released into the environment, which is the first step to determine the final distribution, impacts and destination of these wastes.
Microplastics come from a variety of sources, including larger plastic debris that degrades into smaller and smaller pieces. In addition, microbeads, a type of microplastic, are very small pieces of manufactured polyethylene plastic that are added as exfoliants to health and beauty products, such as some cleansers and toothpastes. These small particles easily pass through water filtration systems and end up in the ocean and the Great Lakes, which poses a potential threat to aquatic life.
Microbeads are not a recent problem. According to the United Nations Environment Program, plastic microspheres first appeared in personal care products some fifty years ago, and plastics were increasingly replacing natural ingredients. As recently as 2012, this issue was still relatively unknown, with a large number of products containing plastic microbeads on the market and little awareness on the part of consumers.
On December 28, 2015, President Obama signed the 2015 Microboa Free Water Act, which prohibits plastic microspheres in cosmetics and personal care products.