Microplastic pollution is one of the most serious and pressing threats to our oceans today. But what are microplastics and why are they a problem?
Quite simply, microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic that come in all shapes and sizes and are often invisible to the naked eye. Although innocent sounding, microplastics have been found in all of the world’s oceans and in the bellies and body tissues of a plethora of marine life...the impact of which is undeniable.
Over the past 10 years, the word ‘microplastic’ has been muttered in scientific circles with more and more urgency, almost sneaking up on those who are working to conserve the natural environment. Today however, scientists, businesses, NGOs and policymakers alike are all agreed: tiny bits of plastic are big news.
Microplastics come in many different forms and from a variety of sources. Credit: Fauna & Flora International.
There is a growing body of evidence to show that microplastics can seriously harm sea life. Credit: The 5Gyres
But what does it mean and how does it relate to you?
Plastic rubbish is known to make its way into our rivers and seas from many different sources. If you’re lucky enough to live by the sea, you will no doubt be all too familiar with the sight of beautiful beaches littered with bits of plastic. As these bulky pieces of litter start to break up, they produce hundreds if not thousands of microplastic fragments which then lurk in the environment, confusing hungry marine animals as they scavenge for dinner.
Whilst this type of microplastic pollution is an unfortunate by-product of a much bigger littering epidemic, you might be surprised to learn that you could be unwittingly introducing similar microplastic particles to the sea...from the very products that you use in your bathroom!
Slowly but surely, microplastic ingredients have been stealthily added to some of our favourite toiletries and cosmetics over the past 30 years – often replacing natural alternatives (such as nut shells and sea salt) as abrasives in things like exfoliators,
toothpastes and soaps.
These solid bits of plastic are often referred to as microbeads, and many people are shocked to learn that they are unwittingly contributing to the growing volume of plastic in our oceans simply by going about their daily skin care and beauty regimens.
Keep reading to find out more about microplastics, microbeads, and – most importantly – what YOU can do to put a stop to it.
Video courtesy of MinuteEarth
Small and buoyant, microplastics are virtually impossible to contain or clean up once they reach the ocean and are quickly carried far and wide by water currents.
Because of their size, microplastics are often mistaken for food by a wide range of marine animals – from tiny plankton right the way up to fish, turtles, seabirds and even whales.
A growing body of evidence has shown that microplastics can be harmful or even deadly to marine life, causing injuries and choking, or disrupting behaviours such as feeding, swimming and reproduction.
Plankton filmed eating microplastic
Video courtesy of New Scientist
Microplastics can also harm marine life by leaching toxic chemicals into the surrounding seawater, and by adsorbing noxious substances already present in the marine environment which are then introduced into the food chain when the plastics are eaten.
Dubbed a “cocktail of contaminants” by scientists, this raises serious concerns not only for marine life but also human health, especially as some of these chemicals (such as DDT) become more and more concentrated as they pass up the food chain.
Think this isn’t relevant to our clean Australian waters? Then think again.
The Sydney Institute of Marine Science tested 27 sites across the harbour, with researchers finding up to 60 microplastic fragments per 100 milligrams of sediment. This was a higher volume than expected – especially in the supposedly ‘cleanest’ areas.
What’s more, a nationwide marine debris project carried out by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) included at-sea assessments of marine microplastic concentrations.
During this three-year study, the team found between 4,000 and 8,000 microplastic pieces per square kilometre, floating around Australia – with increasing density closer to populated areas.
Download the fact sheet to learn more about microplastic.
Since 2012, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has been leading efforts to end the unsustainable and unnecessary use of plastic microbeads in cosmetic and beauty products.
As part of this work, FFI partnered with the Surfrider Foundation to launch the Good Scrub Guide Australia. This easy reference tool helps consumers choose facial scrubs that are free from microbeads, and so sends a clear message to manufacturers that people do not want these ingredients on their bathroom shelves.
Be careful though: some products might claim to be ‘microbead’ free but this doesn’t necessarily mean they are free from all microplastics.
The Good Scrub Guide helps avoid this confusion by explaining which ingredients you should be on the lookout for. More importantly, the Guide makes choosing your favourite plastic-free face scrub easier by including a wide range of Australian products that cater for all budgets.
For information about other types of product (e.g. toothpastes, body washes, soaps etc), check out these online product lists.
Examples from around the world show that this approach really works. In the UK, for instance, 25 leading manufacturers and retailers have now taken a public stance against microplastics (as of June 2015) and many others have pledged to phase them out in the near future.
Australia, too, is starting to make progress on this important issue.
In 2014, following a high-profile visit by FFI’s President, HRH Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, the New South Wales Environment Minister called for a national legislative ban on products containing microplastics and convened a working group to investigate. This resulted in the Federal Environment Minister announcing a new plan in June 2015 for reducing marine debris, including phasing out microplastic ingredients.
But despite this progress, more still needs to be done. Australian manufacturers need to step up and join the few Australian and New Zealand companies that have already made a public stand (Living Nature, Sodashi, Swisse Wellness, Sukin, and Trilogy).
We need you to vote with your wallet by choosing plastic-free products. By doing so, you will help keep up the pressure on manufacturers, retailers and legislators alike to ensure that they take meaningful action.
Are you already campaigning against plastic pollution and want to join the fight against microplastics? Check out our campaigner’s fact sheet (PDF) to find out what you need to know.
The Australian data were collected by Fauna & Flora International with support from the Surfrider Foundation Australia, Tangaroa Blue Foundation and the Beat the Microbead coalition.
This website was developed with a generous grant from the Ian Potter Foundation
About The Ian Potter Foundation
The Ian Potter Foundation is one of Australia’s major philanthropic foundations. The Foundation makes grants nationally to support charitable organisations working to benefit the community across a wide range of sectors including the Arts, environment, science, medical research, education and community wellbeing. The Ian Potter Foundation aims to support and promote a healthy, vibrant and fair community for the benefit of all Australians.