While browsing your local beauty store, you might have seen some toothpastes that glitter, or a facial cleanser with “exfoliating” wonders. These products are strategically marketed to appeal to the masses, with substances that set the product apart from their competition. Unfortunately, the glitter or beads in beauty products are often microplastics, which have proven to be extremely damaging to the environment and a substance to not be forgotten in the midst of a climate crisis.
Microplastics are exactly what they sound like they would be: small, even microscopic, pieces of plastic. Microplastics are usually less than five millimeters long or about the size of a sesame seed, and make their way through our water system and harm oceans and marine life, according to the National Ocean Service.
They can be pieces of plastic that have broken apart from larger pieces, or they can come in the form of microbeads that were manufactured for a specific reason, such as providing a scrubbing function in a toothpaste. They can also appear in products such as deodorant, shampoo, lipstick, facial cleaners, and a variety of other products. These small pieces of plastic go down our sinks, do not break down in wastewater treatment, and end up in our rivers, lakes, oceans, and even our soil, according to NOS.
Microplastics are a relatively new occupant of our oceans, and it is not yet clear what the impact of them will be. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has put together a Marine Debris Program to study samples from the ocean floor with the aim of fully understanding the breadth of this issue and the impact. Scientists believe that toxic microplastics are impacting the food chain and adversely affecting mammals, including humans who eat seafood, according to the United Nations Environment Program.
According to CNN, microplastics have been found in human placenta, blood, and lungs. Though it has been more than 50 years since plastic microbeads first came into use in household products, scientists did not understand the impact of these products until about 10 years ago and currently estimate that there are at least 14 million metric tons of microplastics on the ocean floor.
Gratefully, in 2015 the US government signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which banned the use of microbeads in personal care items.
Although it may seem way out of our hands, there are a few things that we can do to lessen the effects of microplastics on the environment.
- Avoid single-use plastic items and be a smart consumer. Look for natural fabrics when shopping for clothes and avoid buying fast fashion, much of which is made from products that contribute to this problem.
- Pay attention to this issue. Thanks to the ban on microbeads, companies like Unilever have stopped manufacturing goods with microbeads. Nonetheless, pollution from microbeads is estimated to have created around 1% of total environmental microplastics. Other sources include clothing, plastic pellets, and car tires (5). While the Microbead-Free Waters Act was a great first step, more regulatory action on this issue seems sensible.
- Keep an eye on scientists who are working to solve this issue in the environment:
- Wasser 3.0, a German company, has created a substance that can be placed in a body of water and will pull together microplastics into a lump that looks like popcorn. The popcorn-like lumps can be reused as filler in industrial products. Wasser 3.0’s technology is already in use at a municipal wastewater treatment plant in Germany where 600 pounds of microplastics were removed in one year. They are also implementing the technology at a private paper company.
- Three recent graduates from the University of Pennsylvania, winners of the Class of 2022 President’s Sustainability Prize, have founded a company called Baleena and will develop a device for trapping microfibers in laundry machines (7). Their creation is a microfiber-catching laundry ball that is around the size of a tennis ball and can be used in a washing machine. The filters inside the ball collect microplastics from microfibers.
Often, things like microplastics seem out of the concerned environmentalist’s control. It is important to keep hope and to continue to lessen consumption of plastics and increase awareness of relevant issues like this.