Plastic under the Microscope

(This page is part of the Earth Arcade story – scroll down to find information on this activity, or go here for a run down of the Earth Arcade)

One of the Earth Arcade scientists ushers you over with a wave of a hand, asking if you want to see something interesting. Why not, you think and walk over to see what they are demonstrating. They point to a computer screen which is displaying a mangle of different coloured fibres, some smooth, some folded at sharp angles, and ask you what you think it is.

You don’t know but you can see it is a view of something under a microscope on the table. You look closer. Eugh! It looks like belly button fluff.

The scientist explains it is actually fluff collected from a tumble drier and that many of those fibres are actually plastics. You never even realised clothes were made of plastic, let alone that 170,000 of these small pieces of microplastics are washed away every time you washed your clothes.

Who are these people in the purple hoodies?

I want to see something scary.

I want to leave.

I don’t have time for this, show me a list.

This one wasn’t our idea but was one of the suggested activities in the NERC Operation Earth science communication handbook. It uses digital microscopes to view clothing fluff, collected from a colleague’s tumble drier. The close up view allows you to identify the plastic fibres from the natural ones, and this is often an eye opener for many who never even knew clothes contained plastic.