Micro particles – major threat: Microplastics in the Oceans
Plastic waste in the seas is now a global issue that can no longer be ignored. Yes, the tonnes of microplastics drifting in our oceans may be so tiny they are barely visible to the naked eye. But that only increases the threat to the marine environment. So it’s reassuring to know that science is beginning to get a better understanding of the risks involved and that international opposition to microplastics is growing. We asked experts from various specialist backgrounds eight key questions about microplastics.
We have to offer our marine environment better protection from microplastic waste. There are already many solutions proposed by the worlds of politics, business, environmental protection, science and for consumers. But this is an issue we must all work on together, in the spirit of the 2030 Agenda, which calls for commitment based on partnership between many different stakeholders. In real terms, however, much too little is being done. So we asked various experts more specifically about the issues involved and received answers containing many interesting facts, explanations, proposals and warnings.
The Ecosystems Of Our Oceans – How Are They Doing?
Every day, millions of tons of plastic waste end up in our oceans, both as invisible microplastic from shower gels or as plastic bottles. But do you know how much waste exactly occurs each year? Or via which routes the waste travels to the seas? Test your knowledge!
1. What are microplastics?
Microplastics are small pieces of plastic less than five millimetres long. But they can come from a variety of sources. Environmental scientist Ralf Bertling, who is employed by AG Mikroplastik at the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology (UMSICHT), explains:
“There are two types of microplastics: primary microplastics are manufactured industrially. They are used in hygiene products, for example, such as creams and exfoliants, and enter the rivers and seas through wastewater.
Then there are secondary microplastics. These are created when larger plastic waste that has already entered the oceans, such as plastic bottles and plastic bags, are broken down into tiny plastic pieces by UV radiation and mechanical stress.
Secondary microplastics also include synthetic textile fibers that are released into wastewater from clothing during washing, as well as wear from car tyres, which can be washed directly into soil and waterways after rainfall.”
2. Where do the microplastics that pollute the oceans come from?
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has discovered that most of the microplastics found in the marine environment come from microfibers made of synthetic textiles (35 percent), followed by marks left by car tyres (28 percent). An IUCN report published in February 2017 estimates that between 15 percent and 31 percent of all plastic waste entering the oceans could be microplastics.
These findings came as a surprise to IUCN Director General Inger Andersen:
“This report is a real eye-opener, showing that plastic waste is not all there is to ocean plastics. Our daily activities, such as washing clothes and driving, significantly contribute to the pollution choking our oceans. These findings indicate that we must look far beyond waste management if we are to address ocean pollution in its entirety.”
The seven main sources of microplastics in the marine environment according to IUCN are:
- Synthetic textiles
- Car tyres
- City dust
- Road markings
- Marine paints and coatings
- Cosmetic and personal care products
- Plastic pellets
Share of different microplastic sources entering the oceans:
3. Why are microplastics present in so many products?
Microplastics are present in many cosmetic and personal care products such as deodorant, shampoo, lipsticks, shaving foam and sun creams, because they are cheap and easy to use. In sun cream, for example, microplastics form a film on the skin; in hairsprays they hold hair in shape; and as a component in toothpaste they are particularly effective at removing plaque. These tiny plastic particles also have many benefits for industrial products such as paints and coatings. The peel of citrus fruits is often coated with synthetic wax containing microplastics to protect them from drying out or bruising.
Dr Nils Simon, from the Berlin think tank adelphi, differentiates between the unavoidable and he “accidental” release of microplastics:
“Cosmetics is the only relevant field of application in which the release of microplastics is an unavoidable consequence of their use. All other sources – and in their totality much more significant – such as wear from car tyres or microfibers from functional garments can be seen to some extent as accidental.”
4. Why can’t sewage treatment plants filter wastewater more effectively?
There is no way to prevent microplastics from car tyres or road markings entering rivers and seas as a result of rainfall. But when microplastics are washed into the sea from consumer wastewater, sewage treatment facilities could stop them. But Nadja Ziebarth, a marine conservation expert at the German Federation for Environment and Nature Conservation (BUND) believes that wastewater treatment plants have only limited potential:
“Although Germany has a high standard of wastewater treatment, sewage plants cannot completely remove microplastics from the water. And those quantities that are filtered out at the sewage plant end up as sewage sludge to be used on soils.”
Wastewater treatment plants in many countries are therefore not effective enough. But even when the filtering of microplastics works relatively well, there are no benefits for the environment: sewage sludge is used as a fertiliser on fields and soils – meaning that microplastics are simply returned to the natural environment via a different route.
5. What are the health consequences for humans and the animal kingdom?
As to whether microplastics can end up on our dinner plate via the food chain, opinion remains divided. Microplastics have been found not just in the oceans, but also in bivalve molluscs, crustaceans, fish and sea birds.
Dr Christopher Zimmermann, Director of the Institute of Baltic Sea Fisheries, sees an enormous threat to marine life, although not as things stand to humans as yet:
“The biggest problem is that fish larvae often mistake microplastics for food. Although they have a full stomach, they haven’t actually consumed any nutrients and in the worst case may starve to death.
Generally fish are able to excrete microplastics through the gut. Only if the microplastics contain softening agents do elements find their way into the organism. As far as we know at present, there is no direct risk to human health. After all, we eat herring or cod fillets rather than their stomachs containing the microplastics.”
But opinions differ. Some researchers say, for example, that microplastics act like a magnet on pollutants dissolved in the water. These pollutants then enter the animals, where they remain in the body and accumulate in fatty tissue. In this way, pollutants may then be consumed as food by humans at the end of the food chain.
6. Is there an end in sight to the use of microplastics in cosmetic products?
Only a small proportion of the microplastics that find their way into the oceans are derived from cosmetic products. But this is one of the simplest ways to bring about change. That’s why there is comparatively high public interest in banning the use of microplastics in cosmetic products. Here’s what Dr Nils Simon from the think tank adelphi has to say:
“Natural and biodegradable alternatives exist, but pressure from civil society and policymakers on manufacturers has been nothing like enough to force them to rethink. In the meantime, a growing number of countries have banned the use of microplastics in cosmetic products. Most manufacturers are gradually beginning to recognise that continued use of microplastics may be damaging to their company image.”
Beiersdorf, the company that manufactures the well-known Nivea product line, says they no longer use microplastics:
“We’ve been working on environmentally friendly alternatives and stopped using those kind of plastic particles in late 2015. Depending on microparticle size and colour, we replaced them mainly with microcrystalline cellulose beads, a mixture of microcrystalline cellulose and silica particles or castor wax. These replacement particles have the same effect and are just as gentle and skin-friendly as their predecessors.”
Many environmental organisations are critical of these voluntary commitments, saying they do not go far enough. Greenpeace, for example, states:
“Although voluntary self-regulation in the cosmetics dialogue between industry and politics has suppressed the use of solid plastic particles from exfoliants and other washable personal care products, nothing has been done about the widespread use of synthetic polymers in liquid, gel-like, waxy or suspended form – with uncertain consequences for the environment. What we are being sold as microplastic-free products by the conventional cosmetics industry amounts to consumer fraud.”
7. Should microplastics be banned?
Since 2013 the German Government has been in dialogue with the cosmetics industry on voluntary withdrawal from the use of microplastics in cosmetic products. Certain countries, including USA, Canada and the United Kingdom, have already banned the use of microplastics in cosmetics or are planning to do so.
Bundestag member Peter Meiwald, spokesperson on environmental policy for Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, also demands statutory provision for Germany:
“The natural cosmetics industry has been showing for decades that it is possible to manufacture wonderful products without destroying our environment and waterways. Instead of depending on ineffective voluntary obligations, we need a complete ban on the use of microplastics in cosmetic products and detergents.”
An important step is to mobilise civil society against microplastics at the national level. But action is also required at the international level. The Heinrich Böll Foundation and think tank adelphi propose an international convention to combat plastic waste, including microplastics.
Barbara Unmüßig, chair of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and Alexander Carius from adelphi make this demand:
“Negotiating a global convention that tackles plastic pollution where it originates, fosters innovation for more sustainable plastics, and supports countries in enhancing their domestic waste collection and recycling systems. It is the necessary next step and should have priority, rather than focusing on the Sisyphean task of cleaning up entire oceans while millions of tons of plastic waste keep streaming into them.”
8. What can we do to reduce microplastics?
There are lots of ways in which we can reduce pollution of the marine environment with microplastics.
- Personal care products: Avoid using products that contain microplastics. In Germany, the organisation BUND has published a consumer guide listing which cosmetic products contain microplastics.
- Clothing: Since so many microplastics end up in wastewater when we wash synthetic textiles containing polyester, microfibers, spandex or nylon, choose instead clothing made of materials such as organic cotton or wool. Don’t wash clothing made of synthetic textiles too often.
- Food: Avoid plastic packaging when shopping. Even if it’s not your intention, much of packaging waste ends up in microplastic form in the oceans.
- Spread the word: Tell your friends and acquaintances why and how they must help to reduce microplastics. Your commitment could be infectious!
The Indonesian-Australian TV star Nadya Hutagalung is involved in the #CleanSeas campaign of the United Nations. Her message to others is:
“No beauty product is worth destroying the world’s beautiful oceans, not to mention our own human well-being. There are alternatives! So let's choose what we buy carefully and together, with the combined power of our voice and our wallets, we can urge beauty companies to end their use of microbeads.”
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