It is no secret that our production and over-reliance on plastic is responsible for many of the environmental issues we face.
In fact, a new study found that the production and release of plastics, pesticides and other pollutants is happening at such a rapid and large scale that we have exceeded the planetary boundary for chemical pollution. Planetary boundaries are safe limits for equilibrium. The researchers highlight, “plastic pollution as a particular subset issue of high concern”. Beyond plastic containers, bottles, and packaging with which that we are all too familiar with, there is another, less visible, form of plastic pollution that is an omnipresent and harmful pollutant takes the form of tiny, hardly visible particles. These are microplastics.
What are microplastics?
Microplastics are small plastic particles that are less than five millimetres long and fall under two categories: primary and secondary microplastics. Primary microplastics are the result of land-based activities such as laundering of synthetic clothes and the friction of car tyres. Microbeads found in cosmetics, such exfoliants, and certain kinds of toothpaste are examples of microplastics too.
Secondary microplastics are the result of larger pieces of plastic that fragment into smaller pieces of in nature. These particles permeate our water systems and air, where they affect soil quality and animal communities, disrupting the food chain and cycle of life. According to a report by environmental think tank Pew Charitable Trusts, the four largest contributors to microplastic pollution are tyres, production pellets, textiles and microbeads.
Microplastics in your skincare
Microplastics filter into our lives, often without us knowing, through our skincare .Microbeads are used as exfoliants in scrubs and toothpaste. There are many alternatives that are eco-friendly and better for your skin, such as chemical exfoliants. These may sound intimidating, but they are much gentler on your skin. Or, there are also natural exfoliants such as rice and coffee.
While microbeads are the most obvious presence of microplastics in cosmetics, microplastics can be formulated into products as well and as easily go undetected. The two most commonly used microplastics in cosmetics are Polyethylene and Acrylates Copolymer which add waterproofing or act as thickening agents.
The cosmetics industry has few regulations around what constitutes microplastics and even less legislation banning them. While some countries (not South Africa) have banned microplastics in personal care products. Both the European Union and America have banned microplastics, but only for wash-off products such as cleansers, masks and scrubs, to prevent pollution of waterways. This does not apply to products we wash off only after an entire day’s wear. Often the legislation only applies to particles larger than 0.1 micro millimetres, which fall under the category of nano plastics. These particles are invisible to the naked eye and can enter into the bloodstream and harm cells.
Why are microplastics harmful?
When microplastics wash out into the ocean, they are consumed by organisms and sea life. As microplastics are mostly consumed by smaller fish and invertebrates, this can affect the entire food chain, according to the United Nations Environmental Programme.
Microplastics affect the reproductive system of certain species. This occurs from hormonal imbalances caused by chemicals from plastics, or a result of animals not getting enough nutrients from eating these plastics. A study published by Nature Communications found that zooplankton ingestion of microplastic “might presently have a disruptive influence on global ocean oxygenation equivalent of up to half that of climate warming”.
“If we knock out something like zooplankton, the base of our marine food web, we’d be more worried about impacts on fish stocks and the ability to feed the world’s population,” says marine biologist Jennifer Lynch.
Microplastics can also release toxic chemicals into the soil affecting agriculture and the food we consume. There isn’t enough research on the effect microplastic consumption has on people, but we are consuming millions of particles every day and The Guardian reports that recent research has found microplastics in the placenta of unborn babies.
So, what can we do?
We need a greater collective effort when it comes to managing global waste and reducing plastic production. The the meantime, there are a few things you can do to limit your contribution to microplastic pollution.
The first is to keep an eye out for microplastics in your bathroom. Beat the Microbead is an app that detects microplastics in your products by scanning the ingredient list. Checking for these ingredients before buying an item can help you make an informed purchase.
Additionally, supporting plastic-free brands is a great way to “vote with your wallet,” says Sain Sutherland, co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet. She urges consumers to take action by holding brands accountable. “Ask them what they’re doing about microplastics. Tell them to remove them,” she says.
Look for the Zero is an organisation that authenticates brands and products have don’t contain any plastic in its formulation. Using brands with the “Zero Plastic Inside” logo is another way to support brands that are making a positive change.
Secondly, limiting plastic use is the ultimate long-term goal. Even though plastic products can be reused and recycled, many shed microplastics. Try to shift towards recyclable, plastic alternatives such as glass and aluminium as well as wearing garments made from natural fibres. These can be recycled easily and don’t shed microplastics.
According to Nature, microplastic pollution is predicted to more than double to an estimate of 380 million tonnes in 2040. This number is expected to rise if we don’t act now.
It’s still too early to understand the full effect microplastics can have on humans and the environment as well as the long-term health complications it can lead to. However, it is certain that microplastic pollution is increasing and is a concern to the future of agriculture, human health and animal communities.