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Microplastics – Barely visible, but omnipresent

Not only plastic, but also microplastics are omnipresent today and can be found everywhere – in the water, in the air and in the soil. Crushed by wind and weather, it travels around the world and ultimately ends up in our food. But how harmful are microplastics and how exactly do these tiny particles end up in our environment?

What is microplastic and how does it get into our environment?

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that are smaller than 5 mm and can have different shapes. A general distinction is made between primary and secondary microplastics.

Primary microplastics

Primary plastic microparticles are used intentionally and specifically for products. These include shower gels, scrubs, toothpastes and soaps. However, various detergents and cleaning agents as well as color additives also contain added microplastics. Primary sources also include plastic pellets, which are used in industry for plastic production.

Secondary microplastics

Secondary microplastics are created unintentionally through the ageing and decomposition processes of larger plastic parts. These particles are worn down and scrubbed into small pieces by wind, waves, weather and light, for example. The abrasion of car tires causes a third of all microplastic emissions. Carelessly discarded plastic products – known as “littering” – also produce a lot of microplastics.

A sign with the inscription “No Littering”

Microplastics can enter our environment in many different ways: Microplastics enter the air through tire abrasion, shoe soles, floor markings or road paint. It ends up in water through the washing of textile fibers, cosmetics, detergents or shipping. Many items of clothing lose tiny plastic fibers during washing, which washing machines are unable to filter. Some of these fibers end up in rivers or oceans. Microplastics are also transported into our soils through landfills, artificial turf, synthetic fertilizers or sewage sludge. The tiny particles are found in sewage sludge because sewage treatment plants are – fortunately – good at removing these particles from drinking water. As a result, sewage sludge is often spread on fields as fertilizer and can also be washed into rivers by floods.

Several studies have already shown that microplastics can be detected in the environment worldwide: In oceans, lakes, rivers, in the deep sea, in agricultural soils, in animals and ultimately also in us humans.

Microplastics - consequences for our environment

Oceans in danger

It has been known for many years that plastic is a major problem for our oceans. The majority of all plastic in the sea comes from the land. Plastic waste enters the sea primarily through tourism, agriculture, wastewater and fishing: from large plastic bags and beverage containers to textile fibers, cosmetic products and fishing nets thrown overboard. Once this waste has formed into huge plastic swirls in the oceans, the plastic floating in the sea attracts many bacteria and environmental toxins. These accumulated plastic particles are eventually eaten by various marine organisms. According to studies, microplastics can be harmful or life-threatening for living creatures.

Inland waters and soils

Microplastics are also a constantly growing problem for our soils and inland waters.It can change the structure of the soil and thus reduce the usability of agricultural soils and cause long-term damage to soil organisms.

Lots of plastic waste floating in the sea

Microplastics - consequences for our health

Microplastics are now also found in our food. For example, it has been detected in fish, mussels, fruit, vegetables, salt and honey. Tiny plastic particles have also been found in beer, soft drinks, sugar and mineral water. It has become almost impossible to avoid microplastics completely. It is created during the extraction and production of raw materials as well as during the use and disposal of products. Microplastic particles can be ingested by humans through the consumption of food.

However, additives found in plastics are particularly harmful to health. These substances get into the air and water, accumulate in house dust and find their way into our bodies in several ways. Hormonally active substances, such as plasticizers, are particularly problematic and can trigger numerous diseases. These include breast cancer, infertility, allergies and diabetes. Even in menstrual hygiene products, such as tampons, there is often more plastic than is apparent at first glance.

Microplastics on a plate

What can we do about microplastics?

A first important action against microplastics is the responsible use and disposal of plastics. Keyword: avoid plastic at all levels and prevent it from entering the environment in the first place. Product design is also crucial. Many cosmetic products, for example, can be manufactured without microplastic additives or washing machines could be built with suitable microplastic filters. Everyone can make a valuable contribution against microplastic pollution by not simply throwing away waste carelessly, but disposing of it properly – at home, on the way to work or on vacation. You can also make sure you drive in a fuel-efficient manner to reduce tire wear.

At Austrian level, there is the Microplastics Action Plan 2022-2025, which is also Austria’s contribution to the implementation of the “Green Deal” at EU level. Among other things, the action plan calls for research and innovation to be strengthened, awareness to be raised among the public and in schools, and voluntary measures such as the Austrian Ecolabel to be promoted. The EU Circular Economy Action Plan and the EU Plastics Strategy are important measures that are currently being taken at European level to combat microplastics.


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