A Slightly Greener Thing

Microplastic Pollution Is a Much Bigger Problem Than You Realize

The latest research suggests that our bodies, like our oceans and ground soils, are now dumping grounds for microplastic waste

Markham Heid
Published in
5 min readOct 27, 2021
Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

You probably already know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s the Texas-sized mass of plastic debris that’s floating in the ocean between California and Hawaii.

Except it’s not Texas-sized anymore. It’s much larger.

According to estimates from The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit research group, the garbage patch is now twice the size of Texas. Also, it’s no longer an only child; four more incomprehensibly large collections of plastic waste are spreading like metastasizing tumors in the open waters of our blue planet.

While the ocean garbage patches are the most arresting indicators of global plastic contamination, they’re only part of the story — and maybe not the most concerning part.

“I’m at least as worried about plastic pollution in terrestrial environments as I am about pollution in water bodies,” says Roland Geyer, PhD, a professor of industrial ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

You can’t see them, but microscopic bits of plastic are gradually smothering our surfaces, suffusing our air, and saturating our ground soils. “Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it just turns into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic,” Geyer explains.

‘We’re just starting to look at how microplastics may adversely affect soil health or plant growth.’

A 2017 study in the journal Science Advances estimated that of the 8,300 million tons of plastic that humans have ever produced, we’ve managed to reuse or recycle just 9 percent of it. Another 12 percent has been incinerated, while 79 percent is still with us — in some form or another.

Even in some of the most remote and pristine forests on the planet, such as the Pyrenees Mountains in France, researchers have found that the air contains microplastic particles. They have also estimated that the microplastic contamination in our…



Markham Heid

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.