Tiny, Plastic Pollutants are Creating a Big Problem in Our Oceans

by Heather Grant.

There’s a good chance that you’ve heard something or other about “microbeads” over the past couple of weeks. These tiny particles have been making a big splash in the news lately – from the NDP’s ban on microbeads in personal care products, to the recent Environment Canada investigation into their status as a toxic substance (and a petition, to boot!).

Microbeads are tiny balls of plastic, usually polyethylene – the same kind of plastic used to make things like plastic bags and bottles. Microbeads can be found in a plethora of cosmetic products and are usually marketed as “exfoliating beads” in face and body scrubs, hand soap, and so on. So what’s the big deal? Microbeads are just one of the many sources of plastic pollution in our waters, yet they represent a much bigger and more sinister problem.

Microbeads suspended in commercial body wash via threehundredandsixtysix.wordpress.com

Microbeads can’t be filtered out by wastewater treatment – they’re just too dang small. So they end up in our oceans where they join untold amounts of other teeny tiny bits of plastic (and larger ones too) that are choking life in the ocean. And not just the ocean, either; recent studies have found small bits of plastic also polluting freshwater rivers and lakes as well. All shapes and sizes of plastic pollution have contributed to a very serious problem in our oceans. Sea turtles are increasingly being found with their guts full of plastic bags, which are easily mistaken for jellyfish, and sea birds like albatross are dying with their stomachs crammed with cigarette lighters, bottle caps, and other bits of plastic junk.

A dead albatross found at the Midway Atoll, full of plastic debris (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Chris Jordan)

These larger pieces of plastic are also exposed to sunlight and UV radiation while floating around in the ocean which actually does cause the plastic to break down, and rather quickly, but only into smaller particles of plastic which can still be extremely harmful. These smaller particles are called “microplastics”, a term that would also apply to microbeads, and other small (less than 5mm) particles of plastic (such as the thousands of plastic microfibres that may be shed from an item of polyester or acrylic clothing during a wash cycle!).  The smaller these particles become, the harder they are to clean up and the more likely they are to end up where they shouldn’t be.

A sampling of microplastic debris recovered from the ocean via 5 Gyres Institute

Microplastics float (and sometimes sink too!) around in the water column like little sponges in a plastic soup, leaching and absorbing significant amounts of toxic chemicals like bPA, PCBs and other Persistent Organic Pollutants. Many of these particles inevitably get snapped up by some ocean creature, who ingest and absorb the same chemicals that have been soaked up by the plastic. Research at Dalhousie University found that in Nova Scotia, both wild and farmed mussels contained significant amounts of small plastic particles, which were filtered from the water as food and remained in the mussels’ digestive tracts. Recent studies have also found microplastics accumulating in other commercially important fish species such as haddock, cod, and trout, all the way down to the tiny zooplankton that the whole ocean ecosystem depends on. With the amount of plastic that’s out there, we have no way of knowing what kind of effect this pollution will have on our fisheries and the people who depend on them – healthy fisheries require a healthy ocean and habitat.

Cole, Matthew, et al. “Microplastic ingestion by zooplankton.” Environmental science & technology 47.12 (2013): 6646-6655.http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es400663f

Furthermore, while we don’t really have a picture of the magnitude at which microplastics have contaminated our seafood supply, you can bet that they have to some degree. Which means it’s possible that these little plastic bits or the chemicals they carry may have already made their way into our stomachs. Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution to this problem. The plastic that’s out there in the ocean isn’t going anywhere, and it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to remove it ourselves.

What’s most important now is to stop adding to the problem – a recent study estimated that 8 million tonnes of plastic made its way into the oceans in 2010 alone. Banning sources of plastic like microbeads, a truly unnecessary addition to ocean pollution, is certainly a good start – you can check whether a product contains microbeads by looking for polyethylene in the list of ingredients. But there are still thousands of products (and packaging for products) that people use in their everyday lives that contribute to the plastic soup in our oceans. It’s important for people to start realizing that we are not so far removed from the problem as we might think; even though we can’t see those tiny microplastics, it doesn’t mean they aren’t affecting us. There are a lot of complex issues facing the health of our oceans, from overfishing to ocean acidification, and many of these problems are bigger than just one person. Reducing the amount of plastics we use (and inadvertently release into the ocean) is a simple thing that every individual can contribute to by changing what they buy and how they dispose of it. If we can’t stem the tide of our plastic addiction, then we will surely suffer the consequences.

Heather is the Marine Communications Campaigner at the Ecology Action Centre. She loves spending time on, in or near the ocean, and doesn’t want to see it get filled with anymore of our trash.

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2 thoughts on “Tiny, Plastic Pollutants are Creating a Big Problem in Our Oceans

  1. I heard a Megan Leslie interview on this; she mentioned what to look for on personal care product ingredient labels as a certain flag that there are microbeads/plastics in the product. It would be useful to include this in the very good piece above. Sorry , I didn’t make a note of it. Also mentioned were cheaper and more effective home-made cleansers; these really do work better and are fun to personalize. Have used them for years; lots of recipes online, and natural products are expensive to buy retail .

    • Hi Christine!

      I believe if the product contains microbeads, it will list “polyethylene” in the ingredients – I’ll make a note in the post. And yes there are lots of natural alternatives, some as simple as ground rice! There have been a number of companies phasing out microbeads or committing to switching to natural alternatives, which is great, though it would be ideal if they were not permitted in any products. It’s probably best for people to come up with their own home recipes anyway! Do you have any of your own to share?

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