Scientists Say: Microplastic

Tiny pieces of plastic have a special name, and pose a special ocean threat

face wash

What appear to be tiny bubbles in my face wash are really microplastics. These small spheres give the wash that scrubby feeling.

B. Brookshire/SSP

Microplastic  (noun, “MY-krow-PLAS-tik”)

Small pieces of plastic that are less than 5 millimeters (or 0.2 inch) in size. That’s about half the size of a typical grain of rice.  Plastics — materials made from long strings of repeating molecules — are often cheap to make. But they can degrade very slowly once they’ve been discarded. Sometimes, they can break down into microplastics. Other times, microplastics may be produced to make tiny clothing fibers or the exfoliating beads in face wash.

In a sentence

Fish, corals and plankton may mistake microplastics for food, and stomachs full of plastic could be major problems for these species.

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Power Words

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coral  Marine animals that often produce a hard and stony exoskeleton and tend to live on the exoskeletons of dead corals, called reefs.

microplastic   A small piece of plastic, 5 millimeters (0.2 inch) or smaller in size. Microplastics may have been produced at that small size, or their size may be the result of the breakdown of water bottles, plastic bags or other things that started out larger.

plastic  Any of a series of materials that are easily deformable; or synthetic materials that have been made from polymers (long strings of some building-block molecule) that tend to be lightweight, inexpensive and resistant to degradation.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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