AQWA Explainer – Microplastics

From Mariana to Everest, from toothpaste to teabags; microplastics are everywhere!

You’ve heard that the ocean swallows tonnes of plastic each year; approximately 12.7 million metric tonnes in fact.

But did you know you’re swallowing plastic too? The average Australian ingests a credit-card’s worth of plastic weekly in the form of microplastics, according to a 2019 study.

Microplastics are any pieces of plastic that measure 5 millimetres or less in length. They might be small, but they are everywhere. Microplastics have been found from the depths of the Mariana Trench, to the heights of Mount Everest. They’re in our water, air and food. From toothpaste, to teabags to table salt. They infiltrate rivers, oceans and glaciers, from surface to seafloor. But one thing is common – these polluting particles start on land.

Microplastics in our oceans come from a handful of primary sources and activities;

  • Breakdown of larger plastic items (secondary-microplastics)
  • Microbeads in personal care products
  • Plastic pellet spills and mismanagement
  • abrasion of tyres
  • the shedding of synthetic clothing fibres

These last two are actually the Big Issues: two-thirds of the global release of microplastics are from the erosion of synthetic textiles and tyres!

What are the main concerns about microplastics in these environments?

Firstly, once here they build up in the food chain by being ingested by a wide range of keystone organisms, from zooplankton through to larger predators.

Secondly, microplastics act as Uber drivers… travelling just about everywhere and carrying all manner of nasties such as invasive species, pollutants and viruses, transporting them further and persisting longer than living organisms would.

Overall, studies have shown that for marine wildlife, microplastics disrupt reproductive systems, stunt growth, diminish appetite, cause tissue inflammation and damage, and alter foraging and feeding behaviour.

AQWA recently introduced a new range of educational programs called Eco Teens; a full day of science and sustainability focused activities, including the the chance to sample for microplastics on a guided beach clean up. The results of both the sampling and clean up were eye-opening for our Eco Teens. Discover more here.

Reduce your own microplastic pollution (and consumption):

Scientists still don’t know what effect microplastic ingestion has on humans. But we’re guessing you’re probably keen to reduce microplastics in your life, body, and environment right now?!

  • Fashion and fibres: choose natural fibres for clothing and household linens, such as bamboo, cotton, Tencel, linen, hemp and wool, instead of synthetic fibres like polyester and nylon, which shed microplastics when washed.
    • TRY IT: the app and website Good On You lets you compare fashion brands on their ethical and sustainable standards, including fibre choices. Brands like Tluxe, Boody, Bhumi, Patagonia are great choices.
  • Wash up well: Install a washing machine filter or use a microfiber catcher laundry ball/bag. These are all designed to catch microfibers before they enter the waste-water system during the washing process.
    • TRY IT: Guppy FriendCora Ball and PlanetCare Filter are some options.
  • Dive in to a beach clean: joining local beach clean-ups helps to clear plastic waste and also raises awareness to educate people on the issue.
    • TRY IT: stay tuned to AQWA Foundation for our beach clean-up announcements! Teens aged 12-16 can now also join in our newest eco program and complete their own AUSMAP supported microplastics survey with our Eco Teendiscover more here
  • Ban bad plastic brands: choose brands that use less plastic packaging overall, use recycled or reusable packaging and do not use microbeads.
    • TRY IT: websites like Nourished Life and Biome can help you choose plastic free and eco-conscious cosmetics, homewares and more. Brands like ZeroCo do all the work for you, offering a holistic household solution.
  • Make supermarket switches; make simple switches in your grocery shop, opting for recyclable or compostable packaging instead of single-use plastic products. Plus, buy in bulk if you can, for less packaging overall.
    • TRY IT: Choose glass sauce bottles. Pick loose fruit. Opt for bamboo toothbrushes and razors. Switch to beeswax wraps to ditch/reduce cling films. Bar-soaps over bottled body wash. Tin cans over plastic pouches. The switches are endless!
  • Splurge on quality reusables: we all know we should ditch disposable takeaway cups, plastic water bottles. straws and cutlery, all of which contribute to secondary microplastics and leech microplastics into our food and drink! It’s also important to invest in quality reusables, like those produced from glass, bamboo or stainless steel. Otherwise your well intentioned reusable might turn out to be less-than-sustainable, when it ends up unusable and in landfill.
  • Level up your local recycling: learn about and support the policies and programs that aim to reduce the use and incorrect disposal of plastics. This includes things like; bans on single-use items; understanding ARLs; supporting CDSs, correct kerbside recycling and increasing recycling capacities in your city.


While microplastics and plastics pollution as a whole is a complex problem, reducing our own microplastic pollution through our brand choices and day to day behaviours allows us to amplify our impact.