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Plastic waste does not always stay the same. A plastic bag floating in the sea will break down into smaller pieces. Due to contact with UV light from the sun and the weather, nothing will remain of this bag, but it will disintegrate into an uncountable number of microplastics [1]. We call something macroplastic if you can see it with the naked eye, such as the plastic bag. The plastic bag continues to chip and break down until it is so small that the plastic particles are no longer visible to the naked eye. Plastic that is less than 5 mm in size is called microplastic.

See also

  • Microplastic

  • Ernstige gevolgen van plastic afval

  • Plastic afval

Microplastics in drinking water

It's a big problem if you can't see such incredibly small plastic. People and animals can eat or swallow plastic without realizing it. Unfortunately, there are not yet any water treatment plants that can filter the microplastics out of the water.

Research into drinking water in European cities shows that there is microplastic in our drinking water: 72.2% of the 18 tested drinking water locations contained plastic fibers [2]. That meant that the drinking water consisted of 4.5 fiber per 500 ml of water. The conclusion is that we may be drinking water with plastic particles without realizing it.

Microplastics in household items

A lot of microplastic also ends up in our water through our households. Care products such as shampoo, sunscreen, toothpaste or shower gel may contain microbeads.

Did you know...

You also add microplastics to the water when you wash synthetic clothing? About 63% of our clothing consists of a mix of natural and synthetic fibers [3]. A wash of 5 kilos releases between 600,000 and 17,000,000 of these plastic microfibers [4]. 

Microbeads are small plastic granules that act as a scrub (see Figure 4). When used, these plastic balls wash away into the sewer system via the shower or sink.


Figure4. You see microbeads, the blue plastic balls, that are in a scrub. Source foto: MPCA Photos – microbeads-plastic-particles © © https://www.flickr.com/photos/mpcaphotos/22208966814

From microplastic to nanoplastic

Microplastic can further break down into nanoplastic through weathering. Nanoplastic is smaller than 100 nanometers. It is so small that there is a chance that this plastic will enter your body cells and end up in various organs (5).

Perhaps the very little can be detrimental to your health. Microplastics and nanoplastics can carry chemicals and pathogens. Too little research has been done to know what consequences this may have for our health.


  1. Wageningen World (2016).Ons plastic is zoek. 13. https://issuu.com/wageningenur/docs/wageningen_world_2016_02__nl_web/10
  2. Synthetic polymer contamination in global drinking water– Kosuth, Wattenberg, Mason, Tyree, Morrison. (2017). https://orbmedia.org/stories/Invisibles_final_report
  3. Synthetic fibers – Disasterous for humans and oceansPlastic Soup Foundation
  4. De Falco, F.; Gullo, M.P.; Gentile, G.; Di Pace, E.; Cocca, M.; Gelabert, L.; Brouta-Agnésa, M.; Rovira, A.; Escudero, R.; Villalba, R.; et al. (2018).Evaluation of microplastic release caused by textile washing processes of synthetic fabrics.  Pollut., 236, 916–925.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2017.10.057
  5. Nanoplastics gevaarlijkerdan microplastics (2014) Ingrid Zeegers. Magazine over de zee, link >>

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Causes of plastic soup

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De mens is de veroorzaker van de plastic soep. Wij maken de plastic producten die uiteindelijk in de natuur belanden. Wist je dat 80% van het afval in zee van het land komt? [1]. Via verschillende omwegen zoals de wind, riolen, grachten of rivieren komt het afval uiteindelijk terecht in zee. 

See also

  • Plastic afval

  • Plastic afval

  • Plastic zwerfafval van land naar zee

The image shows that a small part of our waste ends up directly in the sea. Most plastic takes a longer route to end up in the water. So something you throw on the street in the city can still end up in the sea.

Plastic pollution for years

Plastic in the sea is (unfortunately) nothing new. Plastic waste has been ending up in the sea for decades. And this will only get more. Every year, 8 billion (!) kilos of plastic waste is added to the sea [2]. Scientists estimate that there are already 150 billion kilograms of plastic in the oceans [3]. At the same time, the world is producing more and more plastic: in 1964, 15 billion kilos were made and in 2014 this had grown to 311 billion kilos of plastic [4].

More and more

So if nothing changes, there will only be more plastic waste in the sea. The shocking prediction of researchers is that if we do not change anything, the seas will consist of more plastic than fish by weight by 2050 [5].

Disposable plastic

The most common plastic waste in the sea is products that you use every day. A striking feature of all these products is that they are single-use plastic: plastic that is thrown away after one use. Figure 3 shows the top 10 most common marine debris. What objects do you sometimes use?

Top 10 plastic afval

Figure 3: The top 10 most common types of marine litter, by numbers. Bron: https://oceanconservancy.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/FINAL-2018-ICC-REPORT.pdf

Plastic is part of our society

We live in a world where it is unthinkable to live without plastic. Packaging, clothing, cars, care products, electronics: almost everything is (partly) made of plastic. Now it sounds like if plastic is only bad, but did you know that this material also has a lot of georteen? 

Plastic material:

  • Is cheap,
  • Is versatile,
  • Can be used for many years,
  • Is quite strong [6].

It is precisely these advantages that are also the disadvantages of plastic. Recycling of plastic happens far too little. From 1950 to 2015, only 9% of plastic was given a new life and the rest was landfilled or incinerated to generate energy [7, 8]. In addition, recycling means postponing throwing away a product. This is because used plastic will deteriorate in quality if you want to make it into a complete product again [8].

Plastic can last a lifetime. Plastic that is not recycled can last for hundreds of years and can last even longer if it breaks down into smaller pieces, known as microplastic. Some plastics can even last up to 600 years! [9] If plastic remains floating in the sea for so long, it will continue to pose a threat to marine life now – and in the future.


  1. R. Jambeck et al. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science, 13 february 2015.
  2. World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company, The New Plastics Economy– Rethinking the future of plastics (2016), Bladzijde 17.
  3. Ocean Conservancy and McKinsey Center for Business and Environment,Stemming the Tide: Land-based strategies for a plastic-free ocean (2015).
  4. PlasticsEurope, Plastics – the Facts 2013 (2013);PlasticsEurope, Plastics – the Facts 2015 (2015).
  5. Projections for 2015 and 2025 based on Ocean Conservancy, Stemming the Tide (2015)
  6. World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company, The New Plastics Economy – Rethinking the future of plastics (2016),http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications
  7. Production, use, and fateof all plastics ever made – Geyer et al (2017) https://plasticoceans.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Production_use_and_fate_of_all_plastics_ever_made.pdf
  8. Strategy on plastics in the circular economy (2017)European Parlement.
  9. NOAA / Mote Marine Lab. Approximate Time it Takes for Garbage to Decompose in the Environment.(2017). Available at this link >>

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Plastic soup

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An island has emerged in the Pacific Ocean from about 79,000,000 kilograms of garbage that floats together. It concerns an area that is 3 times the size of France! This plastic collection in the sea was first called the plastic soup. 

See also

  • Plastic in sea

  • Plastic zwerfafval op het strand

  • Verzamelde plastic tijdens beach clean-up

Who discovered the plastic soup?

In 1997, ocean scientist Charles Moore sailed from Hawaii to Southern California, taking a different route than usual. It passed through a "gyre" in the North Pacific Ocean, as you can see in the picture below. A "gyre" is a large circular motion of the sea water caused by the rotation of the earth in combination with certain ocean currents You can compare it with a tornado under water: a gyre has the same rotating movement and the suction force pulls the floating plastic towards itself.  

Charles saw pieces of plastic floating past here every day. He went on an investigation and discovered that a larger amount of plastic floated in this place than in other places in the Pacific Ocean. He also saw that the plastic here not only floated on the water, but also floated under water. Charles called this discovery the "plastic soup", a word that is still known around the world today. 

De North Pacific Gyre

The North Pacific Gyre is where Charles Moore discovered and described the plastic soup. Source: Fangz

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Ontdekking plastic soep

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