Microplastics are not going away

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Microplastics are polluting our environment and are of particular concern due to their potential toxicity and small size and their impact on the birds, fish and other marine life that ingest them. While the consequences of plastic making its way up the food chain is not fully known we should be concerned about the potential risk to our health since the fish and shellfish affected may end up on our plates as seafood.

What are microplastics and where do they come from?

Microplastics are very tiny plastic particles usually smaller than five millimetres and most commonly can be made of polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP). Microplastics are frequently added to personal care products that end up in our waste water, can be fragmented from larger pieces of plastic waste, produced during the use of products such as washing synthetic clothing, or discharged as part of the manufacture and recycling of plastics.

Microplastics we may frequently use are plastic microbeads added to toothpastes, shower gels, defoliants, face scrubs, cleansing agents, lip gloss and suncreams. Each time we wash ourselves and brush our teeth we wash thousands of microplastic particles down our plug holes and they pass, due to their small size, through the waste water filtration systems and into our rivers, lakes and oceans.

Are microplastics a risk to our environment and us?

Plastic litter was acknowledged at the 2015 G7 summit as posing a global challenge, directly affecting marine and coastal life and ecosystems and potentially human health. An EU-funded study in the Mediterranean has found that more than 80% of marine litter collected were microplastics and showed that even relatively clean rivers with low populated catchment areas can transport as many as 50 billion microplastic particles each year. Research by the European Food Safety Authority has found that the digestive tract of fish and shellfish contains the largest quantities of microplastics. The digestive tract of fish is not normally eaten, but is when bivalves such as mussels are eaten.

A recent EPA funded study on microplastic pollution in Irish freshwaters found that 24 species of molluscs, fish, birds, mammals and crustaceans have been identified as being potentially at risk from microplastic pollution in Ireland, many of which are classified as endangered and vulnerable. The study also highlighted that there are potential risks to our health through eating fish that have ingested microplastics or by accidentally swallowing water exposed to microplastic pollution while swimming. The study considered these risks as low while the drinking of water contaminated with microplastics posed a greater risk.

Banning the beads

Microplastics are not biodegradable and once they enter the aquatic environment, they can last for centuries without breaking down. The best way to reduce microplastic pollution is by removing it at source rather than trying to manage it after pollution occurs. While plastic microbeads represent only a fraction of the microplastics in our oceans, it has been estimated that many billions are being washed into our rivers, lakes and oceans each year.

Plastic microbeads do not need to be used as natural and biodegradable alternatives exist such as jojoba beads, apricot kernels, ground nutshells and salt. A number of countries have taken the lead and have banned microbeads. In Ireland a public consultation on a microbeads ban was undertaken earlier this year with over 3,000 submissions received. This indicates that people are concerned about plastic microbeads and want their impact on our aquatic environment to be tackled.

What can you do to help?

You can help by buying cosmetic and cleaning products that are microplastic free by checking out their ingredients. To help, you can download the Beat the Microbead App that allows you to scan the barcode of personal care products to check for the presence of plastic microbeads using colour coding – Red: contains microbeads; Orange: contains microbeads but the manufacturer has pledged to stop using them in the near future; Green: does not contain microbeads.

Let’s stop using microbeads for the sake of our oceans and our health.

EPA Bathing Water Team