Matt Simon Uncovers Poisonous Impact of Microplastics in Latest Book

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Image of Matt Simon presenting on his book, "A Poison Like No Other." Credit: Vinh Huynh '27.

Matt Simon's fascination with global microplastic pollution started with a billiard ball constructed from elephant tusks.

"Back in the 1800s ... this guy put out a $10,000 prize for somebody to think of a synthetic alternative to elephant ivory. And they invented the first mass-producible plastic to meet that demand," Simon explained, with a curious glimmer in his eyes. "That's how it got so out of control, because somebody had a very good intention to keep people from killing elephants that turned into this planetary crisis that we now find ourselves in."

This jackpot story inspired Simon, veteran science journalist at WIRED, to start his newest book “A Poison Like No Other: How Microplastics Corrupted Our Planet and Our Bodies.” He presented notable findings from his book to the DePauw community at the Peeler Auditorium on April 22. 

The event aligned with Earth Week 2024’s theme of “Planets vs. Plastics” and was co-sponsored by the Global Studies Fellows Program, Environmental Fellows Program, English Department, and the Great Lakes College Association. 

Microplastics in Everyday Life

Simon elaborated on a worldwide culprit behind microplastic usage: fast fashion.

“Some two-thirds of clothing is now made out of plastic,” Simon highlighted. “Polyester and nylon are made out of plastic. (and) it's much cheaper to produce than cotton clothing … By wearing plastic clothing, (we’re) shedding a lot of these microfibers by one estimate. Just by walking around, we're shedding a billion fibers per person per year.”

Simon said there are limited policies addressing the spread of microfibers from fast fashion products. While there were previous attempts to create policies in California and Connecticut to add mandatory labels about synthetic clothing’s potential to shed microfibers in laundry machines, these regulations are yet to be reflected on a national scale. 

“In the fashion industry, (there is) at least some acknowledgment of how many microfibers they're actually releasing each year. A single load of laundry (can contain) millions of fibers,” he said. “We have such a large population demanding so much clothing now, in large part because fashion has indoctrinated us with this idea that we should have closets full (of) clothes that we barely wear … So I think we're stuck with plastics in clothes for a while until we can figure out alternatives.”

Artificial grasses and lawns are also conglomerates of microplastics. Simon explained how field lines across football and soccer fields are made from car tire particles that contain a toxic chemical called 6PPD. Stormwaters can wash away doses of 6PPD into bodies of water, which previously led to the mass death of salmon in urban streams.

“When (sports) players are running around, they're kicking up these hard particles … and you can see this black goo oozing off of these fields. It is these car (tire) particles added to get that sort of natural bounciness that you might expect from a regular lawn. But it's actually (spreading) the surrounding environment with a lot of microplastic.”

Urban infrastructure isn’t exempt from microplastic consumption either. City bridges, cargo ships, and shipping lanes can shed microplastics into the ocean, especially in wide-scale projects or manufacturing processes.

Simon added that the San Francisco Bridge in California has to be constantly repainted with tough marine paint to withstand the fluctuating weather conditions. He said that skid marks or peeled paint marks can worsen microplastic pollution in surrounding water. 

“Every human being is in some way contaminated. Us in this room are probably highly contaminated, (compared to) most in the world” Simon said, “just because of all the plastics we're surrounded with in the United States.”

"Every human being is in some way contaminated."

A Laundry-Based Solution to Microplastic Pollution

Simon explained that installing washing machine filters is effective for combatting microplastic pollution. 

He introduced the audience to Planet Care filters, which allow consumers to send filtered microplastics back to the company to be transformed into new home installation products. 

However, he said that the responsibility should not be placed on consumers. He highlighted a French government mandate in which all new washing machines as of January 2025 must have filters installed to prevent microplastic pollution in national waterways.

“They've been doing this in other countries for decades. Japan has had (washing machine filters) for a very long time. (In the United States), we instead opted for filters on our dryers. We do not have them on our washing machines, and that has actually led to the extreme contamination of the environment with the microplastics,” Simon said. “Now, we need waste for these microplastics that we're catching to be safe.”

Behind the Scenes of Simon’s Writing Process

When asked about his writing process behind the book, Simon emphasized his work-life balance strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I had a lot of free time on my hands because we were still on lockdown ... (I would) write for WIRED during the day, (then) do some microplastic book work at night. I'd spend a whole Saturday doing it, drink a lot of coffee, starting early in the morning, and then just whittle away at it," he said.

To organize his research findings, Simon divided his book into broad categories of land, sea, and air to explain the global spread of microplastics.

“(This organization) helped my brain and I hope it helps the reader conceptualize how bad the problem is in each individual domain, but also how they're talking to each other, right? (And) how microplastics are moving between the land, the air, the sea, back and forth, back and forth.”

He encouraged aspiring science journalists to “be endlessly curious” about their natural surroundings as it could lead to unexpected discoveries.

"Read a story that is so far outside your zone of interest or expertise," he said. "I didn't think that I would be writing about microplastics. (My) first two books were about cool biology ... but you cannot make it in the industry without just being endlessly curious about things beyond what you may be an expert in.”

Simon’s book “A Poison Like No Other” is available in bookstores nationwide, including online retailers such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Play, and Bookshop.