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October 9, 2014

The Relevance of Microplastics in Our Environment

 

Micro plastics could kill us all!Microplastics are one of the littlest, deadliest manufactured secretes out there today. It has made it’s way into some of our most revered products and threatens the health of our wildlife and our own!

Have you ever taken the time to consider the ingredients in your commonly used personal care items? If you have, it is unlikely that you considered plastic as a primary ingredient. Yes, it’s true. Many of your home personal care items contain plastic as an ingredient. Micro plastics are used in commonly used products like toothpaste and face wash and have a profoundly negative impact on the environment.

 

What Are Microplastics?

 

 

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Micro plastics are tiny, non-biodegradable plastics that are used as ingredients in items like toothpaste as well as face wash. These plastics were introduced in the 1970’s but really didn’t start being used in products until the 1990s. They are most commonly made of Polythylene and Polypropylene but can also be made of Polyethylene Terephthalate, Polymethyl Methacrylate and Nylon.

In toothpaste, the micro plastics are simply used as a filler. Dentists are beginning finding the tiny micro plastics embedded in the gums of their patients, as a result of brushing with toothpaste containing the particles. Dentists have not yet found the particles to cause any negative dental health consequences. However, the idea that the majority of these particles are spit into the drain, is pretty concerning. Just think about microplastics in face wash represent the tiny beads that are used to clean and removed dead skin from your face.

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A sample taken from Lake Erie showing micro plastics less than 1 millimeter in size. Credit: 5Gyres.
 

Microplastics in toothpaste
 

Micro plastics are responsible for the grainy texture of some face washes and tooth pastes. Their size ranges from 0.0004-1.24 millimeters making them pretty tiny. Research on micro plastic containing products conducted in the Netherlands found up to 10.6% of a product’s weight to be polyethylene. This worked out to be 21g of micro plastics ending up in the sewer system for every 200ml of micro plastic containing product used. The average amount of micro plastic used daily is 2.4mg per person. Although they are tiny, they are having a large, negative impact on the environment. The design of products using micro plastics is bad; the tiny beads are washed down the drain only to be fed into local water sources.

microplastics in toothpaste

Why Are Micro plastics Harmful to the Environment?

 

Micro plastics are harmful to the environment because their small size makes them too small to be filtered during the water treatment process. This means that the beads then get flushed into waterways. Because they pass through waste water treatment, they are often deposited directly in rivers. They then wind up in large bodies of water like lakes and oceans. The beads are not biodegradable so they remain floating in the water. Here, they absorb toxins and are eaten by marine life because they look very similar to fish eggs.

The 5 Gyres Institute says, “We know micro plastics are pervasive in the environment, that they absorb persistent organic pollutants and are consumed by a variety of marine life, including fish we harvest to feed the world”. The ingestion of toxic micro beads by marine life can eventually make its way up the food chain to humans, as we consume fish.

Plastic pollution is the most prevalent type of pollution destroying the world’s oceans. Research has found that marine life consume this plastic. Mussels, oysters, lobsters and fish are among the creatures that plastic particles have been found in. All of these provide a source of food to humans. Do the math. The marine life eat the plastic, we eat the marine life = we are consuming plastics. Not good. Human plastic consumption is a huge health concern.

The Great Lakes represent historic bodies of water as well as huge sources of fresh water for the local communities. Recently, researchers have conducted studies in the waters of the Great Lakes to identify the impact plastic may be having on the fresh waters. With the use of very fine mesh nets, the researchers skimmed miles of surface water of the Great Lakes. They were astounded by the numbers of micro plastic particles present in the water. The study led researchers to find 1,500-1.1 million micro plastic particles per square mile. Lake Ontario held the highest percentage of particles. This research, completed in 2013, fueled legislations for states to ban micro plastics.

What Products Have Micro plastics?

 

Products containing micro plastics include exfoliating face washes, body scrubs, hand sanitizers and toothpaste. Many major household brands contain micro plastics. Some of the most common are: Olay, Dove, Avon, Estee Lauder, Garnier, Clinique, Revlon, Secret, Cover Girl, Colgate and Crest. The US Department of Health & Human Services provides a Household Products Database that can be searched for products that contain Polyethylene or Polypropylene. Keep in mind that this list will include all products that contain the substance, not just the products that are washed down the drain.
Another great source of information on products containing micro beads is the Beat the Microbead App. This applications allows consumers to scan the barcode of products to find out whether or not the product contains micro beads. The app divides products into three categories; red, orange and green. Red means that the product contains micro beads. Orange means that the product contains micro beads but the manufacturer has pledged to stop using the beads in the near future. Green means the product is safe and does not contain micro beads.

Deep Clean by Neutrogena as well as Clean & Clear and Aveeno by Johnson & Johnson are commonly used face washes that contain significant amounts of micro plastics. A micro bead count in 0.1 grams of Neutrogena’s Deep Clean revealed 7450 beads. If this number were scaled up to represent the full bottle of 4.78 grams it is estimated that the count would reveal 356,110 beads per bottle. This would equal out to over a million micro beads in every three tubes of Neutrogena deep clean. This is an enormous amount of plastic that is being washed down the drain and into oceans and lakes.

What Can Be Done to Eliminate Micro Plastic Use

 

This past summer the state of Illinois was the first state to jump on board with the banning of micro plastic use in products. The state passed legislation that, beginning in 2018, production of micro plastic containing product in the state of Illinois will be banned. The states of Ohio, New York and California are working on similar legislation. Experts believe that getting these states on board will force the product companies to create new formulas without using microplastics. Unfortunately the banning dates are pretty far off. California and Ohio are looking at ban dates after 2017, and Illinois 2018. Environmentalists are frustrated with this response as micro plastics will continue flowing into water sources, causing pollution and damage to wildlife for the next 3-5 years. A global ban on using micro plastics in products is necessary to protect the environment from this pollution.

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state of Illinois was the first state to ban micro plastic use in products

Many companies have already taken the pledge to stop producing products containing micro plastics. Beat the Micro Bead states that Colgate-Palmolive, L’Oreal, Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson have taken the pledge to stop using micro beads. Procter & Gamble have states that the earliest date they will be able to produce micro bead free product is 2017. However, Johnson & Johnson has stated that they have already started to phase out products using micro beads and are no longer developing products containing the beads.

One way to help this initiative is to stop using products that contain micro plastics. Start being vigilant about reading labels. Refuse to purchase products containing micro plastics. Especially avoid facial cleansers with micro beads. Tell people you know about what micro plastics are and how they are affecting the environment. Likely, they had no idea that common household items are polluting water sources with plastic.

Verbalize to companies that you will no longer be using their product until they remove micro plastics from the ingredients. This can be done by e-mail as well as Facebook. This effort along with educating everyone you know will help support a movement that will force companies to take responsibility for their products and their impact on the environment. It is irresponsible to create products designed to deposit plastic into the environment. If consumers take a stance against these products, and states continue to develop legislation banning these products, eventually the company’s creating the products will be forced to change their ingredients as many companies have already done. The world’s water sources are extremely precious, it is time we take responsibility in caring for them.

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