How to avoid microplastics

13 ways to reduce your exposure to microplastics

It’s virtually impossible to go about our day-to-day lives without encountering plastic: The toothbrush you use every morning, the cell phone that stands in for an alarm clock, the toilet seat you sit on, and even the car you drive to work. All that and more are made out of a variety of plastics that will eventually get tossed away and slowly degrade into smaller and smaller pieces known as microplastics.

So how do we keep away from them? There are a lot of little ways to avoid microplastics, but the first step is understanding where they come from and the most likely ways we get exposed.

Where do microplastics come from?

Companies around the world produce more than 400 million metric tons of plastic waste annually, all of which will break down into micro- and nanoplastic particles—which are any smaller than 5 millimeters. Most microplastic pollution comes from the slow degradation of bigger products known as “macroplastics.” However, some microplastics actually start out that way: Small plastic beads known as “nurdles” serve as building blocks for other plastics like bottles and car parts, and microbeads are common in cosmetic and cleaning products.

Microplastics can get into the environment from roadside litter, mismanaged waste and recycling, incineration of larger plastics, and industrial pollution. They’ve been found everywhere from the soil we grow our food in and the air we breathe to Arctic sea ice to deep sea trenches—and even in samples of people’s blood and organs.

Why are microplastics problematic?

While scientific research has historically focused on identifying where the problem with microplastics lies, more recent studies have started to explore more troubling questions about how microplastics pollution might be impacting human and environmental health

We don’t yet have a full picture of the microplastics problem. One of the greatest challenges in answering such questions lies in the fact that they’re not just one thing, explains Robert C. Hale, an environmental chemist and professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Microplastics can come from nearly a dozen different types of parent plastics, and the products that they were once a part of also likely contain potentially harmful chemical additives such as flame retardants.

Environmental concerns

Now that microplastics have been identified on nearly every corner of the planet, the question remains how much of a risk they pose to the environment. Researchers like Hale note in their work that the ultimate fate of those plastics (and the microparticles they break down into) depends on many factors.1 First there’s the type of polymer the original plastic is made from, then there’s a variety of other factors like what kind of environmental forces, such as friction or UV rays, they’re exposed to. Degradation of plastic products can take days—as is the case of the polyurethane foam used in cushioning—or centuries—as is the case with products like disposable diapers and plastic toothbrushes. There’s also the concern about the potentially harmful chemical additives like BPA found in many plastic products.2 

Degradation of plastic products can take days—as is the case of the polyurethane foam used in cushioning—or centuries—as is the case with products like disposable diapers and plastic toothbrushes.

Plastics in the environment can also develop a biofilm, known as the “plastisphere.” That layer can include potentially harmful bacteria and other substances. Microplastics can be accidentally mistaken for food or ingested by wildlife as they filter water for nutrients, as well. Some studies have shown gut-related impacts to animals due to microplastics ingestion.

Human health concerns

We still need a lot more research to fully understand the human health impacts of microplastics. But for now we do know that there are concerns around how specific plastics and additives might impact our health.

When plastics break down into smaller pieces, there’s the potential to release embedded chemicals, which can include toxic flame retardants, pigments, PFAS, BPA, dioxins, and phthalates. Some of these chemicals have been labeled carcinogenic and also have possible or confirmed negative impacts on endocrine systems, thyroid function, immune systems, reproductive organs, cardiovascular health, and fetal and child development. The “plastisphere” could also pose a risk to human health because it could be capable of carrying pathogens that can cause illness and disease.

One 2022 review study concluded that the ingestion of microplastics, in part through consumption of contaminated food and drinks, is one route for “major toxic effects.” These could impact digestive, respiratory, circulatory, and immunological, nervous, embryonic, and placental systems.3

How to avoid microplastics

It may not be possible to completely eliminate plastics and microplastic particles from our daily lives, but there are things people can do to try to curb producing more pollution.

Avoid plastic packaging and single-use products

Single-use products bound for the trash can often be replaced by more sustainable options. For example:

  1. Instead of plastic bags or cling wrap, opt for options like beeswax food coverings and glass, metal, or wood containers.
  2. Carry a reusable straw and utensils with you so if you order takeout, you can forego the plastic options many restaurants still provide.
  3. Use canvas or reusable bags instead of plastic shopping bags. When grocery shopping, skip the produce bags, too.
  4. Don’t purchase beverages that come in plastic bottles. Instead, bring your own reusable water bottle or coffee container. Even better if it’s stainless steel or glass!
  5. Avoid foods that come in lots of plastic packaging, as this is one way that microplastic particles can end up on your plate. One major way that happens: simply opening a plastic bottle, which can shed microplastics into the drink itself.4

Researchers also recommend avoiding any plastics with recycling codes 3, 6 and 7, which indicate the presence of phthalates, styrene, and bisphenols. Phthalates have been identified as endocrine disruptore, are linked to chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes, and can have negative effects on the immune system. According to the Children’s Environmental Health Network, styrene is believed to cause cancer. Bisphenol a, or BPA has long been shown to interfere with hormone receptors

Opt for fresh food

It’s estimated that people ingest tens of thousands of plastic particles every year due to contaminated food and drinks, and microplastics have been found in grub across the spectrum—from salt to energy drinks.56 While it’s nearly impossible to completely eliminate that risk from your diet, eating primarily fresh or frozen fruits, vegetables, and proteins may reduce risk of microplastics consumption. Still we need more research: Studies have also found that contaminated soils and, again, packaging, can taint these foods as well.

Don’t put plastics in the microwave

Microwaving food in plastic packaging can also lead to the release of microplastic particles as well as harmful chemicals such as phthalates, which have been shown to affect reproductive systems in animals. 

Don’t put plastics in the dishwasher

Researchers also recommend consumers not put plastics in the dishwasher. The high heat could lead to the release of microplastics, much the same way it does during microwaving.7

Skip tea bags

Tea bags, which are typically made of plastic, have also been found to be a major culprit of microplastics contamination.8 The packets shed billions of particles while they’re steeping. Consider using loose tea leaves instead.

Use a water filter

While both tap water and bottled water can contain microplastics, adding a water filter to your tap can help reduce the problem. Effective filters include those that use activated carbon, reverse osmosis, and ceramic filters.

Wear natural fibers

Many of our clothing items are made from synthetic fibers which are, in fact, plastics. First, consider changing what kind of clothes you wear from those synthetic fibers (think nylon, fleece, and polyester) to more natural fabrics like organic cotton or hemp. 

Use laundry balls

You can also change your laundry habits and use laundry balls or bags. These help capture any synthetic fibers that come off your clothes during the washing process and stop them from reaching local waterways.

Ditch laundry and dishwashing pods

Those laundry pods might be too good to be true. Some 75% of the plastic (called polyvinyl alcohol, or PVA) that wraps up the cleaning agents in laundry and dishwasher pods remained intact even after wastewater treatment, according to one 2021 study.9 

Spend more time outside

Researchers note that some people spend upwards of 90% of their lives indoors, living in plastic-rich environments that include carpeting, paint, curtains, and other products and textiles not only made of plastic but also full of chemical additives like flame retardants.10 Studies indicate that microplastics contamination in the air is less concentrated in outdoor environments, even in urban settings.11

Vacuum, dust, and tidy up regularly

Indoor dust also contains microplastics, particularly polyester fibers, and studies have indicated that people are inhaling microplastics on a daily basis.12 By regularly vacuuming or cleaning up that dust (and also taking care not to inhale it while doing so), you could reduce the microplastic particles in your indoor spaces. 

Read the fine print

Read the labels on cosmetics, personal care products, and cleaning supplies to avoid especially heat-sensitive plastics—aka, thermoplastics. These include polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polymethyl methacrylate, and nylon. 

Hold companies and officials accountable

Support local and state-level legislation to reduce plastic use. Reach out to your elected officials to share your thoughts and concerns, and contact local environmental groups such as the Sierra Club to learn about any local initiatives. Additionally, support the modernization of the Toxic Substances Control Act to better regulate chemicals in nonfood products, something that’s been endorsed previously by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Contact your state legislators to see how you can get involved.

Engaging in activism, like getting involved in campaigns that call out or boycott companies for their contributions to plastic pollution, is another way to make an impact. National nonprofits such as Break Free From Plastic also call for corporate responsibility in campaigns aimed at curbing plastic pollution at the point of production. Beyond Plastics, based in Vermont, is another project pursuing both policy changes and grassroots advocacy to address plastics pollution that is looking for people to get involved and start local affiliates in their own neighborhoods. If writing is your thing, consider penning a letter to the editor to your local and regional newspapers.

  1. A global perspective on microplastics, JGR Oceans, Jan. 2020 ↩︎
  2. Deep dive into plastic monomers, additives, and processing aids, Environmental Science & Technology, Jun. 2021
  3. A review on microplastics and nanoplastics in the environment: Their occurrence, exposure routes, toxic studies, and potential effects on human health, Marine Pollution Bulletin, Aug. 2022 ↩︎
  4. Microplastics generated when opening plastic packagingScientific Reports, Mar. 2020 ↩︎
  5. Human consumption of microplastics, Environmental Science & Technology, Jun. 2019
  6. Microplastics and nanoplastics in food, water, and beverages; part I. occurrenceTrAC Trends in Analytical Chemistry, Feb. 2023  ↩︎
  7. Food additives and child health, Pediatrics, Aug. 2018 ↩︎
  8. Plastic teabags release billions of microparticles and nanoparticles into tea, Environmental Science & Technology,, Sep. 2019
  9. Degradation of polyvinyl alcohol in US wastewater treatment plants and subsequent nationwide emission estimate, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Jun. 2021 ↩︎
  10. A global perspective on microplastics, JGR Oceans, Jan. 2020 ↩︎
  11. Airborne microplastics in indoor and outdoor environments of a developing country in South Asia, Environmental Science & Technology,, Nov. 2022 ↩︎
  12. Widespread distribution of PET and PC microplastics in dust in urban China and their estimated human exposure, Environment International, Jan. 2019 ↩︎