Microplastics sources

There are two main categories of microplastics:

Primary

microplastics are already produced on a micro-scale.

Secondary

microplastics form by the fragmentation of plastic products.1

Major sources of microplastics, generally, are the wear and tear of automotive wheels. Surprisingly, the biggest source of primary microplastics is plastic pellets lost during pre-product logistic. Transportation of industrial pellets causes an annual loss of 70–105 billion euros. Also, road markings, building and ships paint, and synthetic fabric fibers are significant microplastics sources. Intentionally added microplastics are estimated to count just for a small percentage of all microplastics released (primary) or originated (secondary) in the environment.1

However, above mentioned microplastics sources are minuscule compared to annual plastic production. Mismanaged plastic waste is the main source of secondary microplastics.

Packaging consumes almost half of all plastics production. Moreover, the average lifetime of packaging is only half a year. In contrast, it is 35 years in construction.2 Decreasing plastic consumption in packaging means a significant improvement in the (micro)plastics problem.

Plastic Cunsumption by Segments

Fig. 1: Plastic consumption quantified by segments. Data from ref.3

Plastic Production by Type

Fig. 2: Plastic production quantified by type of polymer. Data from ref.2

Even unforseen events cause plastic pollution – 5 million LEGO pieces are buried on the seabed since 1997 when a ship container overturned. Furthermore, it is estimated that kids flushed into toilet more than 2 million LEGO pieces, globally.4

References

1 Filiciotto, L. and G. Rothenberg. Biodegradable Plastics: Standards, Policies, and Impacts. ChemSusChem. 2020, n/a(n/a). doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/cssc.202002044.

2 Geyer, R., J. R. Jambeck and K. L. Law. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances. 2017, 3(7): e1700782. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1700782.

3 Patil, S., A. Bafana, P. K. Naoghare, et al. Environmental prevalence, fate, impacts, and mitigation of microplastics—a critical review on present understanding and future research scope. Environmental Science and Pollution Research. 2021, 28(5): 4951-4974. doi: 10.1007/s11356-020-11700-4.

4 Turner, A., R. Arnold and T. Williams. Weathering and persistence of plastic in the marine environment: Lessons from LEGO. Environmental Pollution. 2020, 262: 114299. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2020.114299.