By Maleesha Gunawardana
Over the years, plastic pollution has transcended beyond green circles to the public eye because of its visible impacts. Yet, what if the most alarming threats are caused by plastics that are not often visible?
Everyday face scrubs, shower gels, and toothpaste, festooned with tiny plastic particles, are readily available at any personal care products aisle. Most of the time products boldly carry labels which say “with microbeads” or “containing bursting beads”. To identify whether these beads are made of plastic, it is important to look at the list of ingredients of the product and check for polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), or polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA).
Microbeads, a type of microplastic, first made their way into personal care products about 50 years ago, at a time when plastic was rapidly replacing natural ingredients. Added into the product for the purpose of exfoliation, microbeads are about 5 mm or less in size, solid, water insoluble, and non-degradable. Sizes as small as 5 mm are designed to be rinsed off or go down the drain, which results in microbeads easily ending up in waterways where fish mistake them for food.
The invisible impacts
Once it reaches the ocean, a single microbead can get a million times more toxic than the water around it. Its surface absorbs pollutants that have moved into our seas through land runoff, such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), flame retardants, heavy metals, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
Even though plastic is popular for its versatility, what is not so popular are the ingredients added in the manufacturing process that make plastic so versatile and colourful. Such ingredients consist of fossil fuels contaminants and additives — dyes, bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, and plasticisers.
When marine life such as plankton and sea turtles consume these microbeads, the toxic chemicals can leach out and bioaccumulate or build up in their cells and tissues. The ingestion of microbeads itself could block their digestive tracts, leading to starvation and death. While more than 100,000 marine mammals are killed every year by macroplastic ingestion or entanglement, even particles as small as 5 mm could push them further to the brink of extinction as a result of biomagnification – when toxins are passed from one trophic level to the next within the food chain.
The omnipresence of toxic microbeads that kill marine species is a canary in the coalmine, reminding us of the need to stop further contributing to the plight. Humans too are no longer immune to the atrocities of microbeads as they make their way right back to the plates of those who consume seafood, validating the classic scenario of “what goes around comes around”. Some of the chemicals released from plastics into human organs have the potential to cause birth defects, reproductive disorders, cancer, heart disease, respiratory tract symptoms, and vision and hearing impairments.
Microplastics encompass more than just microbeads. As per their origin, they are categorised as primary microplastics and secondary microplastics. Microbeads are primary microplastics that are directly introduced into the environment. Similarly, microfibres that shed from clothing made of synthetic fabrics such as polyester, rayon, and acrylics are considered primary microplastics.
Synthetic fabrics release thousands of microfibres into the environment when machine-washed. Subsequently, microfibres have been detected in chicken, sea salt, honey, and even bottled water. According to the international wildlife charity World Wildlife Fund (WWF), this means that we also consume an average of 5 g of plastic, which is the weight of a credit card, every week.
Secondary microplastics are when larger plastic items break down over time into smaller fragments when exposed to ocean waves, wind, and the sun’s radiation. Despite the growing regard for the removal of vast aggregations of large plastic debris that wash up on the coastlines and float on gyres, this visible trash is thought to represent merely 1% of all the marine plastic waste while 99% will stay for centuries in the deepest trenches of our seas.
The beaches, however, have not been spared by microplastic pollution, which is often buried beneath the sand. A study conducted in Sri Lanka’s southern coastline found that 60% of the sand samples and 70% of the surface water samples collected contained microplastics up to 4.5 mm in size.
Accordingly, whilst macroplastic pollution might just be the tip of the iceberg in comparison to microplastic pollution, the need to halt the generation of at least the single-use plastic waste cannot be overstated as they eventually break down into fragments that wreak havoc in the environment. A study suggests that there could already be as many as 51 trillion microplastic littering our seas – i.e. 500 times more than the stars in our galaxy.
Advocating for microbead-free seas
Microplastic litter, to date, cannot be collected or recycled as comprehensively as larger plastic debris. In light of this, it is imperative to provide solutions at the grassroots level for intentionally added microplastics by imposing bans or voluntary phase-out methods.
As opposed to other types of primary microplastics, the shift from microbeads is one that is easy to make since a variety of biodegradable alternatives, namely whole oats, coffee, and jojoba beads, are effective exfoliants. Consequently, countries including Canada, the UK, the Netherlands, and Taiwan have set out to ban microbeads while some countries have submitted proposals to do so. In countries where bans are yet to be imposed, campaigns such as “Beat the Microbead” have led the way for many cosmetic brands to voluntarily phase out microbeads from their exfoliating products.
Beat the Microbead by the Plastic Soup Foundation is an international campaign against microplastic ingredients in cosmetics and has been creating much-needed impact since 2012 by engaging with people, cosmetic manufacturers, and governing institutions to bring about change. The Pearl Protectors recently joined the Beat the Microbead Global Coalition to call for a ban and/or voluntary phase out of microbeads in personal care products and other microplastic ingredients in cosmetics.
In Sri Lanka, we aim at this goal by initiating an advocacy campaign to propose firstly a ban and/or voluntary phase out of products containing microbeads, while also creating public awareness on the problem of microplastics which is largely not conversed about. A highlight of the campaign is the citizen scientist aspect to it where we collaborate with passionate volunteers to create an online database.
Although the onus of eliminating microbeads cannot entirely be put on the consumer, ultimately the power lies with the consumer to create an ocean-minded shift in demand. Eschewing products that contain microbeads, choosing natural alternatives, and engaging in conversation about the problem of plastic at all ages is vital to effectively advocate for microbead-free waters.
(The writer is the Advocacy Co-ordinator of The Pearl Protectors)
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.