Tiny Plastics Equal Big Problems: Microplastics and Our Oceans

Admit it, it’s no secret: we love our plastics. Plastic is literally anywhere and everywhere in our world: children’s toys, grocery bags, water bottles, car keys, pens, furniture, signs, and the majority of packaging. This list could go on and on! Unfortunately, much of the plastics we create end up floating in our oceans and wash up on our beaches. But what about the plastics we can’t see?

Microplastics may be tiny but they represent a less than tiny problem, especially to marine life in the sea. When we wake up in the morning and wash our face with a gentle exfoliating face-wash, or even when we simply brush our teeth, we could be inadvertently washing tiny particles of plastic down our drains. And although water gets treated at wastewater treatment plants, these facilities generally have not been designed to filter out microplastics. These microbeads have been added to hundreds if not thousands of products and with each use, these ingredients are beginning their journey from our clean, exfoliated faces to the sea.

The microplastics in personal products are mainly made of polyethylene (PE) but can also be made of polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), or nylon. Aside from the health implications of putting micro-plastics on our skin and in our toothpaste, these particles end up in the ocean and in the food chain, potentially leading to consequences for humans as well as marine fauna.

The presence of normal plastic waste in the ocean is already a problem. It’s not uncommon that marine life has ingested larger pieces of plastic, mistaking them for food. These micro-particles may be invisible to the naked eye (5 millimeters or less), but they are contributing to the problem of plastic waste floating in the oceans, waiting to be ingested by unsuspecting marine life.

As research and scientific knowledge continues to expand on the question of microplastics, the evidence confirming the seriousness of this issue is only growing. These particles can be found everywhere. A recent study conducted by Peter Ross, head of the Vancouver Aquarium’s new ocean pollution science program, documented approximately 4000 particles of microplastics per cubic meter of the Straight of Georgia seawater. It’s impossible to know where these originated from, whether from plastic pollution breaking down in the ocean or from our own drains, but they become subject to the currents once they reach the sea.

We may not be in control of larger pollution problems but we can control the kind of ingredients we flush down our bathroom drains. The next time you reach for an exfoliating product at the store, make sure to check the ingredient list and opt for natural exfoliants!

To help you out while shopping, check out this free app from Beat the Micro Bead!


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- Image Credit: Kanapou Bay, Kaho‘olawe, Hawaii. Original source: National Ocean Service Image Gallery via FlickrCC by 2.0


-Written by: Inés de Sequera