Microplastics are a major and continually growing contributor to plastic pollution in our oceans, and we can’t even see them. Microplastics are plastics under 5mm in size. When plastic gets this small it is very difficult to remove from an aquatic environment and unfortunately it is often mistaken for food by marine animals and plants, such as plankton. When plankton becomes attached to microplastics, the microplastics can block out the sun, preventing the plankton from photosynthesising. When it cannot photosynthesise it dies and so its oxygen production stops. With 50-80% of the oxygen production on Earth coming from the ocean and the majority of this production from oceanic plankton, the impact of microplastics in our oceans suddenly hits home.
An obvious contributor to microplastics in the ocean is our plastic waste that has already made it into our waters, but let’s take a look at some not so obvious ways that we are contributing to microplastics entering our waterways.
Personal Care and Cosmetic Products
When we think of plastics in personal care and cosmetics, microbeads might spring to mind. These microplastics kicked up a storm in 2015 and consequently the Microbeads in Toiletries Regulations was introduced in Canada in 2017 prohibiting the manufacture, import and sale of toiletries that contain plastic microbeads. This was a great moment for the fight against plastic. However, even though the industry responded massively to this there are many other plastics still used in personal care products today that are likely to enter our environment through wastewater. In fact approximately 1500 tons of microplastics from PCPs enter the global aquatic environment each year. Plastic ingredients such as Polyethylene and Acrylates Copolymer are extremely common in our products. In fact since more awareness has been raised around more commonly known microplastics, like Polyethylene, the use of acrylates copolymer has actually increased greatly. Some products can even contain as much plastic as the plastic they are packaged in! Even though we might recycle the container it came in we are still contributing to our plastic problem by simply washing these products down the drain. For example; shampoos, shower gels and toothpastes are all applied and then simply washed down the drain. The same goes for moisturisers, deodorants and make-up. These all consequently end up in our wastewater. Wastewater facilities cannot remove all our microplastics, some facilities can remove up to 90% but in less developed countries this number is significantly lower.
We need to stop buying products that are both packaged in plastic and that contain plastic ingredients. I know it can seem like we’re reading another language when we take a look at the ingredients lists but don’t despair! There is an amazing website beatthemicrobead which has a super handy tool where you can check your products for plastics and find plastic free brands. I’m sure a lot of us will be shocked to find out just how much plastic is in the products we use daily.
Microfibres could be one of the biggest contributors to microplastics in our aquatic environments. It is estimated that the laundry of synthetic textiles alone produces 35% of microplastic pollution in our oceans. When we wash our clothes, the fibres on our items fragment and release microfibres. Just by washing our clothes we are contributing to the increasing amount of microscopic fibres within the aquatic environment. More than 700,000 microscopic fibres could be released into wastewater during each use of a domestic washing machine. It seems that polyester-cotton blend fabrics shed fewer fibres compared to polyester and acrylic fabrics, with acrylics shedding the most. An interesting point to note is that the addition of bio-detergents or conditioners tended to release more fibres.
Unfortunately the pollution created from our laundry is often multi-faceted. Alongside microfibres we are also releasing other microplastics into our waters through the use of our detergents. As discussed previously, plastics can make their way into the ingredients list but there’s a more obvious problem we need to be aware of; detergent pods. A recent study by Plastic Oceans International and Arizona State University reveals that detergent pods leak large amounts of untreated PVA (polyvinyl alcohol) into the environment. An estimated 8,000 tons of PVA per year enters the environment from the use of laundry and dish detergent pods. These convenient ‘dissolvable’ pods are often labelled as biodegradable or eco-friendly but are in fact a real pollution problem.
With 80% of canadians owning a washing machine and (hopefully) the other 20% going to a laundrette, what can we do to reduce the amount of microfibres and microplastics from our wash?
- Choose natural fibres over synthetics
- Wash less often and with a full load (the more room clothes have to move around the more agitated the fibres can get which can increase the release of microfibres
- Use front loading washing machines (if possible); microfibre masses from top-load machines were approximately 7 times those from front-load machines
- Check for plastic ingredients in detergents and pods, ensuring they are truly living up to their eco-friendly claims
- There are also currently filters you can buy and ‘capturing’ devices like bags and laundry eggs to capture microfibres, however these aren’t 100% effective and there are concerns over how to dispose of the captured fibres.
It seems we are quite limited on how we can overcome this huge contributing factor, but there are some technological improvements emerging such as new washing machines with additional filters already fitted. With more awareness on this issue hopefully we will see more and more innovative ideas in the near future, so watch this space. For the moment, be mindful about the clothes you buy and how often you wash them.
Paint is often an overlooked component of marine microplastics. In a recent study in the North Atlantic Ocean, scientists estimated that each cubic metre of seawater contained an average of 0.01 paint flakes (compared to microplastic fibres, which have an estimated 0.16 particles in a cubic metre). This suggests that paint flakes could be one of the most abundant types of microplastic particles in the ocean.
The chemical composition of the flakes that were analysed are consistent with those found on the painted components of ships in the Atlantic region. It’s also likely that some of these paint particles derived from land, similar to the way our plastic waste ends up in the ocean, both household and industrial paints. In addition to the sheer amount of flakes that have been estimated it also sheds more light on the ingestion of microplastics by marine life. We know that microplastics are abundant in our oceans and that they are ingested by marine life but what’s lesser known is how harmful they are once ingested. Some paints are designed to have antifouling or anti-corrosive properties and studies have revealed that there are high quantities of copper, lead, iron and other elements in the flakes. With some paint flakes having toxic properties we now know more about the risks that microplastics pose to the wildlife that ingests them.
As this has all been discovered in a recent study there is still a long way to go when it comes to reducing the plastic in commercial and industrial paints. However, as consumers we can begin to acknowledge that paint is a bigger issue than we thought and we can start to make some positive changes. Whether we’re repainting a house or even a boat there are surprisingly a lot of options out there! From clay paints for our hallways to environmentally friendly bottom paint to protect both your boat and the ocean! A little bit of research can go a long way.
We might not be able to see them but microplastics are in abundance, not only in our oceans but they are present in substantial quantities in remote locations such as the deep ocean and the Arctic. An expedition inspired by Sir Ernest Shackleton, is investigating the long-range atmospheric transport of microplastics. The Antarctic Quest 21 expedition team will collect snow-pack samples to research the microplastics, metal and nutrient content of the snow on the Antarctic Peninsula where no person has been before; revealing just how we are affecting the most remote areas on the planet. Microplastics really are everywhere and we all need to take steps to reduce the amount of plastic in our lives. Here’s a reminder of things to consider;
- Buy things that are free from plastic packaging
- Check your ingredients list
- Choose natural fibres over synthetics
- Don’t impulse buy, do some research and see if you’re buying the most environmentally friendly option, you’ll be surprised what you can find!
If we all take small steps to reducing our plastic consumption then collectively we can make a big difference.