It is a daily ritual for some. Exfoliate your face and body with beauty scrubs. Brush your teeth with whitening toothpaste. Clean your sink with scrubbing gel cleansers. Throw your fleece hoodie and polyester shirt into the washing machine. But could these simple acts be flushing plastic into our lakes and oceans?
For years, scientists have been aware of plastic pollution in aquatic environments. There are even areas in the oceans where water currents have concentrated the plastic debris, creating large, floating patches of plastic. However, it is only recently that scientists have started looking into smaller particles of plastic in the water column. In some cases, larger pieces break down into smaller fragments when they are tossed around in the ocean. However, researchers in the Great Lakes in North America found an abundance of round, plastic microbeads, less than 5 mm in diameter and not visible to the naked eye, which did not seem to be broken down from larger fragments. Where did these tiny microplastics come from?
The researchers soon matched the mysterious microbeads to facial and body scrubs used by consumers. Although some companies use natural ingredients such as apricot pits and cocoa husks, many have opted to use plastic particles which are less harsh on delicate skin. Plastic microbeads are also found in some types of toothpaste, chewing gum, and cleaning products. Scientists in other parts of the world have even found plastic fibers from synthetic clothing in coastal environments – their research indicated that a single article of clothing can lose over 1,900 fibers every time it is washed. But how do these plastic fibers and beads end up in the water?
Although microbeads and fibers that are washed down the drain go through a sewage treatment facility, they are not always removed from the treated water before it is released into lakes or oceans. The plastics may float, making it difficult for the sewage treatment plants to process them. Many treatment plants also have filters that will trap larger debris but not these tiny beads and fibers. In addition, when they are filtered out, the microplastics could still be present in the sludge that is spread on fields as fertilizer, potentially getting washed directly into nearby rivers by the rain. It is clear that microplastics are entering the environment, but how dangerous are they?
Plastic production worldwide is estimated at about 225 million tons yearly, and scientists estimate that it could take up to hundreds of years for plastic to break down in the environment. This means that more and more plastic will accumulate in lakes and oceans over time. The concern is that organisms will eat the plastic beads, mistaking them for fish eggs or other food. As the plastic takes up space in its digestive system, the creature will eat less real food, missing out on the nutrition it needs to grow and survive. As well, plastics can contain chemicals such as fire retardants, and absorb metals, PCBs, and DDT, which can cause health problems. Researchers have so far observed microplastics in worms, mussels, and birds, and are concerned that the harmful chemicals could accumulate up the food chain to humans. Research into microplastics in the environment is relatively new, and more is needed to understand the effects and solutions, but what can we do to help tackle this problem?
Encouraging research into better sewage treatment filters for tiny particles might help prevent plastics from getting into the environment after they are washed down the drain. Research on reducing fiber loss in synthetic fabric and improving washing machine designs could help prevent the loss of plastic fibers from clothes in the first place. As a consumer, you can choose to purchase products with natural abrasives such as apricot pits and baking soda, and avoid scrubs and cleaners that list ingredients such as polyethelene and polypropelene. Companies that produce these products seem to be taking a hint when faced with the new research, with L’Oreal, The Body Shop, and Johnson and Johnson volunteering to phase out microbeads by 2015, and Proctor and Gamble by 2017. We may have been unknowingly flushing plastic waste into our lakes and oceans all this time, but armed with our new knowledge we can prevent the situation from getting worse.
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Suzanne P. Currie, August 22, 2013.
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