Environment & Sustainability
Microplastics: How Beauty Products are Turning the Ocean Into Plastic Soup
By Asta Mail, MS
OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND?
Many of us use the “out of sight, out of mind” motto to avoid thinking too much about plastic in our lives. However, the problem with plastics is that even though they may be out of your mind, they are not out of your world. In fact, plastics even hide in many commonly used personal products. Believe it or not, you may be slowly contributing to the ocean becoming a plastic soup—without even realizing it.
We all know that plastic is made to last. It is one of the slowest materials to biodegrade currently being produced. It is also one of the most adaptable and useful products that has ever been invented. Plastic and it’s derivatives are used to package practically every personal care product on the market today. But did you know plastics are also an included as an ingredient in many face washes, shampoos and toothpastes?
WHAT ARE MICROPLASTICS?
Microplastics are commonly defined as small (0.4-1mm), round beads composed mainly of polyethelene plastic. They are added to products which enhance exfoliation, or the sloughing of skin cells and dirt from the surface of hair, skin and teeth. Once they’ve finished their work, these beads disappear down the drain and end up in the surface waters of our rivers, lakes, oceans, and beyond.
What’s worse is that these microbeads attract harmful and even toxic pollutants. When microbeads come into contact with chemicals such as polychlorobyphenyls (PCBs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PACs), a chemical bond forms on the bead’s surface. When the microbeads are eaten by predators in the marine or freshwater environment, they and their chemical accomplices end up on a journey up the food chain.
“Plastic can absorb and concentrate pollutants, and easily transfer them to aquatic organisms,” says Dr. Lorena Rios Mendoza, an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Superior. PCBs and PACs can act as endocrine disruptors to marine organisms, meaning that they can inhibit or disrupt reproductive cycles. The long term effects of microbeads ingestion or exposure is still under investigation, but researchers like Dr. Mendoza are very concerned by the extremely high concentration of microplastics found in watersheds like the Great Lakes of North America.
Plastic research from the likes of Dr. Rios-Mendoza, Dr. Marcus Eriksen of the 5 Gyres Institute, and SUNY Fredonia researcher Dr. Sam Mason, is being used to ask legislators to ban the use of microplastics in personal care products.
The 5 Gyres Institute, a non-profit plastic pollution coalition based in Santa Monica, has brought the issue of microplastic pollution to the attention of companies that use microplastic beads in their products, including Johnson and Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, L’Oreal, Colgate-Palmolive, and The Body Shop. Several of the companies have responded with an offer to remove microplastics from their products by 2017.
The 5 Gyres Institute has also been responsible for bringing the issue to the attention of local legislature. Illinois was the first American state to ban the use of microplastics in personal care products this year, and New York, Ohio, and California all have anti-microbead legislation in the works.
Stiv Wilson, Associate Director of the 5 Gyres Institute, cautions that this legislation may not be as simple and rounded as the beads it intends to ban. The organization’s bill to ban microplastics in the State of California was “quietly killed” recently, and Wilson and the Institute are concerned by several loopholes regarding certain types of biodegradable plastic products in the Illinois ban.
“Though industry publicly pledged to phase out microbeads, they support a lobby that legislatively is trying to supplant one bad plastic for another by creating loopholes for things like PLA- a bioplastic that doesn’t biodegrade in the environment. It’s a bait and switch.” Wilson stated.
Regardless of the bans, microplastics are in the environment, and they are likely here to stay. At the moment, there are no feasible solutions presented for removing the tiny, light microplastics from surface water, or from the sediments where they will likely settle.
Hope for a plastic free future will depend on the courage, intelligence, and forward thinking of the next generation of environmental researchers, engineers and activists. It is my sincere hope that the young minds of the Broad Reach participants will be one day involved in this incredible opportunity to save our marine and freshwater environments.
Check out the 5 Gyres Video about banning microplastics.
Here is a link of common products that contain microbeads.
Want to help raise social consciousness about the effects of plastics on the environment? Take the Plastic-Free Day pledge on Feb. 21!
Asta Mail is a Broadreach summer instructor and has worked as an Expedition Coordinator for sail research organization Pangaea Explorations. She worked closely with the 5 Gyres Institute, Dr. Lorenda Rios Mendoza and Dr. Sam Mason as a part of Pangaea Exploration’s “One Water Story” project, a “citizen science” initiative designed to incorporate local citizens into microplastic marine research. You can learn more about Asta on the Marine Science Today blog, or by watching her short film about the project here.