Do you know that by washing you face with soap, by brushing your teeth with toothpaste or by using other personal care products you are probably contributing to polluting our waterways, seas and oceans?
Microplastics pellets or microbeads are specially manufactured. Smaller than the full stops on this page, they are added to toothpastes, facial scrubs and cosmetics either to provide the scraping effect wherever abrasives or exfoliants are required or to enhance a silky texture and increased spreadability. Some well-known products are said to contain up to 5% microbeads.
To try to prevent natural waters being turned into plastic soup a campaign has been going on for some years to ban microbeads in personal care products and to replace them with natural abrasives such as salt, bamboo and nut shells.
In addition to microbeads, plastics break down over time and large items that were discarded years ago can now present themselves as very tiny, broken-down fragments so small that they are mere specks. Another significant source of plastic fragments is from bits of fibres of synthetic material in clothing getting shed and/or broken in washing machines.
All of these microplastics end up in wastewater and find their way into rivers and the sea. And that's where wildlife comes into the picture. Studies have shown that plankton in the sea takes up a significant dose of microplastics. Since little fish eat large numbers of planktonic organisms their dose of plastic gets concentrated.
Bigger fish eat lots of little fishes and by the time we tuck into a fish dinner we are blissfully unaware of how the fish flesh may have been contaminated by chemicals from plastics. Plastics that absorb and accumulate toxins are of particular concern.
Microplastics in the environment and their impacts on wildlife and on human wellbeing is a highly controversial global issue and is a big area of ongoing research.
Microplastics are defined as litter in the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive and Member States of the European Union are required to establish and implement the necessary measures to achieve good environmental status in their marine waters by 2020.
Some multinational companies like Unilever have made public statements confirming their intention to stop producing cosmetics containing microbeads. Hopefully, all involved and interested parties can continue to work together to ensure that the wastes that go into our waterways, seas and oceans are as environmentally friendly and as biodegradable as possible.