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Themicro- and nanoplastics we find in the environment

start as packaging, car tyres, cosmetics, toothpaste,

clothing fibres, artificial grass, coatings on cans,

detergents, cigarette filters, or balloons. Sometimes,

they are tiny from the very beginning as scrub

particles in cosmetics or micro-fibres in fleece


Litter is the most noticeable type of plastic. However,

many of the plastics around us are so small that we

can’t even see them. Litter is degraded by sunlight and

car tyres wear out as a result of contact with the road.

We use the term ‘microplastics’ for particles smaller

than five millimetres. Particles of less than 100 nano­

metres are referred to as ‘nanoplastics’.

Microplastics such as scrub particles from cosmetics,

or clothing fibres that enter our waste water through

washing machines, are not all removed by water treat­

ment plants. After treatment, domestic waste water

contains an average of 50 particles per litre, all of which

enter the surface water.

Microplastics are also found in the air. For example,

if you run your hand over a fleece sweater, fibres will

be released into the air as particulatematter, before

entering the surface water when it rains.

High concentrations of microplastics can already be

found in river deltas and particularly in sediments,

in fish and in shellfish such as mussels. On average,

a Dutch person will consume an estimated 11,000

microplastic particles every year by eating mussels.

Plastics also get into other foods such as honey or milk

through the air, the water and other organisms.

Nanoplastics may be more dangerous than micro­

plastics. They are small enough to pass through the

intestinal wall and to accumulate in places where they

don’t belong.

Plastics can also represent a danger to health because

they contain poisonous substances or because

organisms that can make us ill bond to the plastic,

spreading easily as a result. It is still unclear how toxic

this plastic is for people.

Some cosmetics manufacturers and other industries

are already working on making their products more

environmentally friendly. Sewage treatment plants are

also being improved to reduce the amount of plastics

getting into the environment. A straightforward

solution to stop the spread of synthetic clothing fibres

involves installing filters on washing machines and, in

the longer term, producing environmentally friendly

and sustainable clothes.

Deltares has been studying plastics in the coastal

zone and in our seas since 2010. A few years ago,

this field was extended to include rivers and the

focus is now on urban environments.

For more information: