Microplastics 101 with Expert, Student & Scientist Madeleine MacGillivray

Microplastics 101 with Expert, Student & Scientist Madeleine MacGillivray

There’s a lot of value in knowing what you don’t know—sustainable living and home is our bread and butter, and we could talk all day about turning recycled water bottles into a duvet insert or how to get started composting—but Team G is the first to admit that we are *not* climate experts.


Brands and influencers (almost always well-meaning!) can sometimes overstep their bounds, and present as experts, without citing sources or including context or data—the meat and potatoes, so to speak. It felt extra important for us to make space for the perspective and voices of folks who have dedicated their lives and platforms to studying climate this Earth Month. When you need us for the sustainable living stuff, we’ll be there for you—but for now, we’re delighted to introduce you to Madeleine MacGillivray, friend of Goldune and resident microplastics expert. Watch the interview here, or read the full transcript below.


Azora Zoe Paknad: I don't always feel comfy talking about microplastics in particular because I feel like I'm not an expert, and you are an expert. 


Madeleine MacGillivray: It's so siloed, you know? The term "expert" is always associated with higher education, which totally makes sense. But I also think you can be an expert if you just educate yourself.


AZ: I feel that it's such a tough balance because I spend a lot of time on TikTok, where anyone can be an expert and appear on your screen and tell you things. And you believe them to be true—and then it's not true at all. 

Hopefully, I think the overall goal is to make it easier to talk about / understand microplastics for folks who don't have access, whether through their work or their lives. I think many people are used to hearing about microplastics in cultural conversation. Maybe it's a little opaque or a little triggering for a lot of people. When they do think about it, it becomes another very overwhelming thing. How would you describe them to folks who are not super familiar or comfortable with what they actually are in real detail? 


MM: Just on a very basic level, the definition of a microplastic is a particle of plastic five millimeters in diameter or under. 

I always start out by saying microplastics are everywhere. It's not hyperbole. They are in our air and water, on your clothes, and in your body. And just saying that can sound very overwhelming—and also, at the same time, be an opaque idea. Well, I can't see them. So how does that impact me? And what do I need to know about that issue? 

There are two sorts of categories: 

1) There are microplastics that have been manufactured as microplastics, which are things like pre-production pellets. These little plastic pellets get molded and melted down in the plastic production process into larger "macroplastics" like your detergent bottles, plastic bottles, etc. Those are microplastics already. 

2) And then there's the sort of microplastics that I think many of us envision. The plastic from the detergent bottles gets broken down over time because we don't have a great recycling system. That's kind of an understatement, at least in America and many other countries. Some countries are doing great, and most countries could be doing more. Plastic ends up in the sea, essentially. And because of the sun beating down the waves, it just gets broken up, gets very brittle, and turns into dust. 

To frame it globally, microplastics are mostly a marine source of pollution. They circulate the globe. There are trillions of them, and they just follow the ocean currents. 

The organization I work with and am an ambassador for is called The 5 Gyres Institute because the 5 subtropical oceanic gyres essentially are a place where a lot of pollution in general and microplastics, coagulate and sort of build-up. 

It's just a visual when thinking, okay, where are these things? And unfortunately, with the answer being everywhere, it's kind of easier to think, Okay, well, they're moving, and they're circulating. And that's why they're everywhere.

The other weird thing about microplastics is they slowly sink into the ocean. So they're all throughout the oceanic layers, which means that there's a layer of plastic not just on the ocean  floor, but in many places.  Why does that matter? Well, it matters because it impacts all the species down to the bottom of the seafloor. Which is a big problem, of course. I like to think of the plastic pollution issue more as smog.

Dr. Mark Erickson, who is the co-founder of The 5 Gyres Institute, likes to put it that way. If you're trying to get your head around microplastics... we all are familiar with the concept of atmospheric smog, right? So it's sort of like that just in the ocean with plastic. It's like, you can't just take a net and pick it up. So that helps us frame sort of the issue as well. 


AZ: That was really juicy. I think the smog analogy is really helpful because I think a lot of people have this perception that things are capturable. Especially as we have more of a conversation about carbon capture or dairy digesters. It’s interesting to think about the "uncapturable." Some things are not literally fixable in the way that maybe our instincts were like, well, could we vacuum them up?


MM: Exactly. And we all want to get involved, especially with other technologies that are happening right now, like the ones you mentioned. There is the plastic clean-up initiative, which is great. I think the scale of this issue is so much broader than humans are actually evolved to comprehend.  


AZ: That's a helpful way of framing. I like that you said that we all want to help. I also feel like sometimes people get so sensitive or feel extra triggered by microplastics or just talking about the climate crisis in general because it feels like a personal moral failure in so many ways when it's really not! You were just kind of plopped into this world at this time. I think most people have good intentions. Most people don't want to do harm. So I'm glad you said that. 

But I'm curious also, for those who do feel, you know, whether triggered or just extra anxious thinking about a smog of plastic and circling us at all times. I mean, who wouldn't feel anxious about that? But, I'm curious what advice you have for people who may feel powerless? 

I know many folks are looking to exert control in different ways. For some people, that's diet choices. For some people, that looks like living an absolute plastic-free lifestyle, which is also out of reach for many people. Knowing no one size fits all, obviously, and we don't like to ever suggest that there is. Are there ways to consider microplastics as you go about your day? 


MM: Totally. I really appreciate what you said in terms of the fact that we are not in control of this. This is a circumstance that we are just in right now. And when we think about microplastics being everywhere, all the time, in our bodies…our world is just filled with certain poisons, right? Certain types of endocrine disruptors and chemicals mess up your hormones. Right now, most folks exposed to the most pollution have the least amount of control and power about limiting their exposure. There are twice as many microplastics in plastic bottled water as in tap water, which is truly insane. 

To illustrate what I just said, many POC folks and many low-income communities are actually at the frontlines of oil extraction and other energy extraction. Their water source is not drinkable. It's been polluted. And so they drink bottled water. There's a really direct impact of  increased microplastic pollution on behalf of these folks. And, if we were speaking to those folks, I can't tell them not to drink bottled water. Even just telling them there are twice the amount of microplastics in their water will make them more stressed out. We are all being exposed. Many people are being exposed disproportionately—especially people of color and low-income communities. 

I think the answer to your question would be to treat microplastics just like any other pollutive process. Okay, number one is acknowledging that this is around us is one thing. And then understanding that there are steps that you can take, which is really exciting.

Let's zoom out. Microplastics are the end result of oil and gas extraction. So to stop or limit microplastic pollution, it's really just about going to the source. So anything that you as an individual have the bandwidth to do to speak out against oil and gas extraction, especially if there's a project being proposed in your area. There are ways you can call your senators. I had no idea how easy it was to even appear and do testimony for the city council. You just email them, and it takes two minutes. 

Understanding that this issue is so interconnected with so many other issues. You can certainly try to frame anything you do through the lens of helping alleviate the problem of microplastics. 

I think many people are undoubtedly concerned about the environment, but mostly about our bodies. I'd like to give an explanation. Plastic itself has all these endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and it's also hydrophobic—it repels water. There are a lot of "persistent organic pollutants" (forever chemicals) in the environment. We call them POPs. These are in our environment because of how humans produce goods and get around. They actually attach to microplastics because the surface of the plastic is hydrophobic. So when we ingest microplastics, we're also ingesting those toxins. That makes you worry even more. But, knowledge is actually really powerful because you can limit this happening if you have access. You can not eat food from heated plastic because that's a huge source of the chemicals leached from plastic. I would argue that actually knowing more about the issue is more empowering. It's not like we're going to stop educating ourselves. It's not like more research will sort of stop coming out. It's really about how we adapt and have an attitude towards that and become empowered. Yes, this is a circumstance. Testing the solutions are limited and also very financially inaccessible. I think it's just about understanding that you have to take control where you can, and where you can't, you have no control over. 

What that means is that you have control over doing what you can to limit the source of plastic production. For example, the Formosa Plastics plant in Louisiana damages the community. You can advocate against the construction of another plant if there's one in your area. Anything you could do to fight oil and gas extraction is wonderful. 

I think understanding where your power is and where it isn't can be is really therapeutic. And then, above all else, really just having folks in the immediate community that you just talk to about it. Just talking about it really alleviates a lot of that stress. 


AZ: I love that. We try to never work with virgin plastic just as a starting point. I'm usually really bullish on recycled materials. Mainly because we have enough raw material forever. We don't really need to be producing that much new stuff. Some materials are mostly circular, like rubber. Great. Cork—great. Aluminum—fantastic. Plastic is sort of its own separate beast. 

Obviously, there are many applications like recycled PET that make sense from a supply chain standpoint. I'm curious what your thoughts are about recycled plastic? I know having plastic as a blanket category is very vague. Obviously, there is a difference between having a recycled PET duvet insert rather than drinking from a plastic cup. How do you feel in general about recycled plastic and its applications? 


MM: My perspective on recycled plastic is certainly like yours. Pretty hardcore. I don't believe in supporting a supply chain that will produce more microplastics. I  think that many of us are probably starting to become more aware of... "Oh, a recycled plastic shoe. Hmm… It's just shedding more plastic." In general, it's really good to be aware that anything you're wearing that's made of recycled plastic is just shedding more plastic. Plastic is not like glass or aluminum. It really can only be recycled once or twice. Anytime there's a "feedstock" needed for something, and we need more and more, it just disincentivizes the truly circular solutions that are out there. With that being said, do I make purchases sometimes that include plastic? Yes. Is it okay in uses where it is not actively going to be shedding into your body… It's just a slippery slope. I have the same questions, honestly. It's just such an abstract idea sometimes. 


AZ: Oh, all the time. The ideal would be the second life of a plastic bottle would be something with longevity that you don't need to recycle again. An object that won't shed or will do its just best when left alone for a really long time. I do feel a little suspicious and skeptical about many companies that claim to be using "ocean-bound plastic." That's what gets to me—the ocean-bound marketing of plastic bottles. I don't believe it. How did you know they were ocean-bound? Where do you get their itinerary? I also have a hard time with plastic neutrality. I obviously love the idea of removing plastic from the ocean. The idea of doing that and then putting out the same amount of virgin plastic while we scoop up plastic bottles… It just doesn't sit well with me either.  


MM: Ultimately, that's just carbon emissions, and if it's not getting sequestered… 


AZ: It's a lot of spinning wheels. For what? It's also a lot of energy for those brands. We could put that energy towards an aluminum option. 

Are there any common misconceptions or any last things that you would want someone who enters this conversation feeling overwhelmed and like not knowing anything about microplastics… Anything that you would like to leave them with, or do you wish they knew more about or understood about plastics? 


MM: From a human health standpoint, the world is filled with carcinogens and pollutants that we can't avoid. Microplastics are one of them. At the same time, there's so much that we can do to try to fight that. There are a lot of unknowns, right? As someone with a science background and as someone who interacts with scientists all the time… I could technically say I'm a scientist, but I'm not actively conducting research at this time.


AZ: Oh, you're a scientist to me. 


MM: I'm humbly a scientist… 


AZ: A humble scientist! 


MM: A humble scientist. We have to be really conservative with our language. A lot of the research that is coming out will say things like "It's quite possible," or "There's a potential" instead of "Microplastics cause cancer." We know that microplastics bind to the plasma in our blood cells and "denature" them. My point is that we have plenty of research and understanding to actively create a policy that limits microplastics from a human health standpoint. I think that from a human health standpoint is where we will have the most action and movement as with everything environmentally related. It's ultimately about humans, which I don't have a problem with. I understand. I think we have evolved to that. 

We can use something called the "precautionary principle" to be like, it’s true. There is a lot of research that still has to be done. It's also true that we know enough already to know it's not good for us. It's really not. Legislating from that standpoint would be really effective.


AZ: What do you feel is the real barrier to entry there? Obviously, it's hard to pass anything, period. I'm curious what you feel is the biggest roadblock? Is it a lack of interest? Is it climate anxiety? Is it purely bureaucratic red tape that you feel keeps us from making the progress you would hope that we would have made by now? 


MM: I think that it's just industry. I think it's just money. When we reframe the issue from "Microplastics" to "Big Oil and Gas..." 


AZ: Yep. That'll do it! 


MM: Yeah, exactly. So there's just too much money right now in Washington. But, I choose optimism because that's human nature. We have to choose it to survive, and I think it's not even a choice as it is just an evolutionary thing. If we can't envision the future, how are we supposed to survive? Looking towards those solutions is really exciting. 

And circling back to being able to be an "expert." If you have the tools and the time or even just the attitude, if you believe you are an expert and can be an expert… you don't have to go to many different schools to become one. It is really exciting. 


AZ: A humble scientist. It's what we all want to be. 


MM: Yes! I love that. Because I think humility is a really crucial part of just existing. Being ambitious and humble at the same time is the secret sauce.  


This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity and length. Love Madeleine’s platform as much as we do? Find her on Instagram here to follow along with her research and the microplastics conversation.

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