Ocean Microplastics: what are they, why are they bad, and what are we doing to phase them out?

Colin Senechal, UMass Lowell


      With so much plastic floating around in the ocean, it’s easy to see the big stuff - plastic bottles, fishing nets, chunks of foam, and other everyday objects that we still can’t seem to dispose of properly. But what about the plastic in the ocean that we can’t see? Microplastics, or small plastic pellets, powders, fibers, and even fragments of larger plastic waste between five microns and one millimeter are also very common in the ocean and extremely damaging to this fragile environment.


      One of the largest sources of these tiny particles, specifically in “microbead” form, are cosmetic products. Body scrubs, soaps, and even toothpaste use these beads as both a scrubbing agent and source of color. Once these products have fulfilled their purpose, they are flushed down a drain and end up in the ocean. In the ocean, these polymer particles degrade due to UV radiation from the sun and other environmental factors, and can let off some not-so-friendly chemicals as a result. The particles can then carry these harmful chemicals with them to their next destination. For example, if these particles are mistaken for food, they can end up in the stomachs of hungry fish or other marine animals, and can even make their way back to our plate in the form of our seafood. In short, the toxins leached into the ocean by plastic particles can make their way back to us through our marine sources of food.

      However, lots of work is being done to reduce the many existing sources of microplastics. For example, the United States, Canada, Ireland, and the Netherlands have all created legislation that bans of the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetic products. The UK is expected to follow suit as early as 2017 in order to further reduce the production of microplastics.

For more information on government bans on microbeads, please click the name of the country 

United States , Canada, Ireland, Netherlands 

      The good news for body scrub lovers is that there are plenty of excellent ocean-friendly alternatives. For example, microbeads in cosmetic products have often been replaced with scrubbing agents like sea salt, rice, apricot seeds, and other naturally-occurring abrasives. Unlike microbeads, all of these alternatives can easily degrade in water and won’t have harmful effects on marine life.


      Commitments have also been made by plastics manufacturers to reduce marine plastic waste through programs such as “The Declaration of the Global Plastics Associations for Solutions on Marine Litter” and Operation Clean Sweep. These programs are aimed at increasing research on the impact of plastics on marine environments, ways to reduce the amount of plastic in marine environments, and creating standard practices for material suppliers and users that will help reduce the amount of plastic waste that is generated through its use.

     Due to the extreme size of the microplastic pollution problem, it’s very hard to estimate the number of microplastic particles that are in the ocean right now, and whether recent efforts have reduced these numbers. In a 2015 study published in Environmental Science & Technology by the American Chemical Society, it was found that of the 808 trillion microbeads flushed into American sewer systems every day, 8 trillion microbeads make it past filtering and into the ocean. Coupled with other sources of microplastics, this is a massive problem, but legislative bans on microbeads and small steps by plastics corporations to clean up waste before it makes it into waterways will significantly reduce the amount of plastic we are putting into our oceans every day.


     As a student in the plastics industry, I think it is extremely important for us to take steps to reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in the ocean. Plastics are fantastic materials, and plastic parts are extremely useful and necessary in many modern applications, but not everything needs to be made out of plastic. In this case, by using easily obtained alternative abrasives for cosmetic products instead of microbeads, we can turn 8 trillion microbeads per day into zero.


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