Swimming in a sea of microplastic
Written by Famke Visser
About three weeks ago, a cargo ship went up in flames along the western coast of Sri Lanka. While the event itself is already horrific, its side effects even more so, it was deemed one of the worst disasters to happen to marine life. The ship carried toxic chemicals and cosmetic raw materials that ended up polluting the water, beaches and marine life. I came across this news firstly on the Instagram page of ‘Vice World News’. Before even reading the description, the captivating pictures stirred so much horror, sadness and anger in me. It showed a group of people wearing hazard suits, face masks, protective goggles and rain boots carrying shovels and rakes. They wore all this not just to protect them from the chemicals, but to clean up the beach containing countless pellets of microplastic.
I have come across the existence of microplastic before, for example in everyday products I (used to) use. This resulted in not much more than slightly changing my buying habits, because I never spent much time standing still by what they actually are, how small, or micro, they are and the enormous damage they can nonetheless do. I looked past them and moved on with my daily business, as I imagine many people do when first hearing about these plastics. Yet seeing these photos, the terror they bring not just to human life, but to global pollution and marine life, has changed how I look at these micro polluters. There have been various recordings of animals like sea turtles and fish washed ashore, with images showing pellets of microplastic stuck in the gills of a fish. These sad images have become the reality of global plastic production and the immense pollution it has caused to all sorts of animals, our planet, and now even ourselves.
The topic of plastic and the extreme pollution it has caused to our planet, is something we have heard about so many times before. This topic and article are not exclusively linked to veganism or any diet, as this is a topic that concerns all people, and one that should be discussed way more. The recently released Netflix documentary ‘Seaspiracy’ also discusses the topic of microplastics and caused a change in the attention the plastic pollution has received in my proximite environment. More family and friends started to discuss the seriousness of the problem or started to recycle plastics more cautiously. While this blog does not cover half of the problems and solutions related to (micro)plastic pollution, it is a way for me to bring more attention to our use of everyday products containing microplastics, often without us even being aware of it. For me this revelation only came recently, yet it still happened and it is something I find greatly important to share with others.
What are microplastics?
Before continuing, it should be discussed what exactly is considered microplastic. The World Health Organisation defined it as following: “As a category, microplastics encompass a wide range of materials composed of different substances, with different densities, chemical compositions, shapes and sizes. There is no scientifically-agreed definition of microplastics, although they are frequently defined as plastic particles < 5 mm in length.” They continue to explain that this definition remains arbitrary and there are many variations to it. If this definition does not cover it, the term ‘nanoplastic’ will, which is considered something smaller than < 1 µm (micrometer) which is 0,0010 millimeter, unseeable with the naked eye. Discarded plastic turns into micro- and nanoplastics over time, due “to weathering, aggression of ultraviolet rays and action of waves and currents”. Both these microplastics and nanoplastics are damaging for our world, marine life, and our own health and plastic pollution has long been recognised as an environmental problem. The first recording of microplastic (pollution) was already in 1970, before the micro problem turned into the macro problem it is now, especially since a good and effective solution to the ever growing problem has not yet been found or executed. Due to this, a lot of recent studies attempted to present more insights and understanding of the problem of plastic pollution, specifically micro- and nanoplastic pollution, especially focussed on the effects it has on marine life and now also on our own health. As it turns out, not just the everyday products that we use, but now also our food, such as most seafood, possibly contain micro- or nanoplastic. Some even state that the average person unknowingly ingests about a debit card worth of micro-/nanoplastic a week. As a way to exemplify the seriousness of the problem even more, besides the pictures and the comparison to a debit card, the following short video shows the plastic pollution problem and quotes the United Nations by stating that “Microplastics in the seas now outnumber stars in our galaxy”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0Ob6SVv3V0
Everyday products that contain microplastics
While there is not much we can directly do to tackle the problem, there are small changes we can make as consumers, both in our diets as well as in our buying and consumption habits. Micro- and nanoplastics appear in quite some everyday products that I am sure many of us still use, including myself. However, many of these products now have vegan and environment friendly replacements that (hopefully) do not contain any microplastic or microbeads. Here are some everyday products that (often) contain microplastic:
Cardboard and paper food packaging, think of drinking cartons, often contain an insulating layer of plastic to keep the cardboard from getting wet
Envelopes, similarly can have a 'protective' plastic layer
Glass jar lids and caps from (beer) bottles occasionally contain a layer of plastic to create an air-tight seal
Chewing gum, this can contain a kind of rubber that could be compared to that of car tires
Sea salt, this can contain microplastics that were already drifting in the ocean when the salt was extracted, thus ending up on our tables
Sun screen, this contains microplastic since it does not fall under any restrictions placed on some cosmetic products preventing the use of it, and it is often a cheap addition to such products
Shower gel, although it is generally not allowed, still often contain microplastics
Any exfoliating cream or soap, uses microbeads often made from plastic as a way to scrub/exfoliate
Toothpaste, also contains some microbeads as a way to scrub your teeth clean
Lipstick, microplastic used in lipstick provide the cheapest way to make it shine
Glitter almost always contains microbeads/plastics
Cleaning supplies, both packaging and the substances often contain (micro)plastics, besides other toxic chemicals
Even though this list is already quite long, it is only a small excerpt of all the everyday products that contain microplastics. If after reading this blog and seeing this list you, like me, feel sad or angry or feel like you do not know what to do but want to do something about it, even if it is only something small, then I advise you to look into the products you buy on a daily basis. The website 'Beat the Microbead' contains an extensive list following the guidelines of the European Chemical Agency and listing ingredients often found in products that are or contain microplastics. To start for example with something as simple as toothpaste, which can easily be replaced nowadays with brush mints or other biodegradable and eco-friendly toothpastes, ‘Smyle’ being an example of a Dutch brush mints company.
While this article did not go as much in depth or show as much information as there is on (micro)plastic pollution, it hopefully still provided some reason to change (y)our consumption behaviours and perhaps helps us heal the planet, the animals, and our own health.