What are Microplastics?

Carnival Season, glitter, and a brief explanation on microplastics

A front end loader removes trash that was left on Boubon Street after last night's Mardi Gras Celebration, Early Wednesday morning  Feb. 25, 2009, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Brian Lawdermilk)

A front end loader removes trash that was left on Boubon Street after last night's Mardi Gras Celebration, Early Wednesday morning Feb. 25, 2009, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Brian Lawdermilk)

What do Carnival Season and Microplastics have in common? Lots! Whether you’re a crushed mardi gras bead or a flake of glitter, in New Orleans you’re likely to find your way into our water system. In celebration of the season, PC’s Water Quality Department is here to give us a comprehensive rundown on what microplastics are and how we can address them.


What is almost non-degradable, but consumed by all living things in aquatic environments? Microplastics.

Microplastics are defined as particles of plastic less than 5 mm in size- that’s about the size of a pencil eraser. And, as our use of plastics increases, so too, does the amount of plastic waste present in our environment.

Not all microplastics are created equal.

Some start off small enough to claim the name “micro,” and are considered primary microplastics. These can be manufactured raw materials or finished products and can include scrubbers, plastics pellets, and microbeads. Another form of microplastic start off as larger pieces of plastic that are broken down into smaller ones after entering our waterways. These are considered secondary microplastics, and they can be made smaller by mechanical or UV degradation.

Excerpt from Mississippi River Microplastics on the Menu

Aboard a small johnboat dodging shipping vessels, Benfield and post-doctoral research scientist, Matt Kupchik pull samples [of microplastics] both north and south of Baton Rouge and New Orleans. “There is a lot of plastic in the river. And there is a heck of a lot going into our estuaries and the Gulf,” observed Benfield.

Most of the plastic is really small – on the order of 10 – 100 micrometers, similar in size to many single-celled algae. Too small to pick up. “The sizes are literally infinite. The plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. The only limitation for collecting them is our current technology,” said Kupchik.

Microplastics are everywhere!

Besides the obvious image that plastic pollution might call to mind: plastic water bottles, straws, and other trash washed up on beaches or scattered along sidewalks, plastics often take more inconspicuous routes to enter our waterways.Microbeads are used in personal care products such as face scrubs, toothpaste, and as a tool for drug delivery in some medical applications can find their way into our water through our shower and sink drains. Similarly, plastic fibers from synthetic clothing can also enter surface waters.


Data on plastics suggest this is a monumental problem, with 6,300 million tons of plastic waste generated as of 2015. Scientists estimate that of that, around 9% was recycled and 12% was incinerated, while the majority, 79%, ended up in landfills or the environment. Many of the plastics that come from our personal care products pass through our wastewater treatment plants unchanged and without measurable removal. As a result, many of these plastics find their way into the environment easily. And despite the discovery of microplastics in fish, filter feeders, and birds, the impact this pollution has on wildlife is not currently well understood.

What can you do about this problem?

Reduce, reuse, and recycle. For example, look for toothpaste products with a natural abrasive or grit, such as sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), instead of polyethylene. Reuse your plastics Starbucks cups and straws more than once. Always properly dispose of plastics after you can no longer utilize them, recycle them where the service is available. Or replace all common plastics with eco-alternatives like biodegradable glitter, reusable alternatives such as metal straws, thermos coffee cups, and canvas shopping bags.


PC is very interested in quantifying the microplastics problem in our basin and protecting our seafood and natural resources. We will have an exciting announcement in the coming weeks about how you can get involved with collecting water samples in our waterways.