Although there is no consensus about the definition of Micro-plastics but according to the U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, small plastic particles in the environment that are less than 5 mm in diameter can be classified as Micro-plastics. This category of particles is of ecological concern because they form 92% of the total plastic pollution in the oceans and are perceived harmful to ocean and aquatic life. There are different kinds of micro-plastics particles which are most commonly found in water bodies.
These range from plastic microbeads, fibres and lines from (synthetic clothes, clothes and textiles, diapers, wipes, tampons, cigarette butts, nets, atmospheric deposition), films, foams, fragments and pellets.
Micro-plastic particles, defined here as particles of less than 5mm in size, can arise through four separate processes:
1. deterioration of larger plastic fragments, cordage and films over time, with or without assistance from UV radiation, mechanical forces in the seas (e.g. wave action, grinding on high energy shorelines), or through biological activity (e.g. boring, shredding and grinding by marine organisms);
2. direct release of micro particles (e.g. scrubs and abrasives in household and personal care products, shot-blasting ship hulls and industrial cleaning products respectively, grinding or milling waste) into waterways and via urban wastewater treatment;
3. accidental loss of industrial raw materials (e.g. prefabricated plastics in the form of pellets or powders used to make plastic articles), during transport or trans- shipment, at sea or into surface waterways;
4. discharge of macerated wastes, e.g. sewage sludge
Where are Microplastics found?
Perhaps you have noticed some tiny materials in your toothpaste? Or those beautiful tiny colours in your detergents? And of course, tiny softly-hard particles that feels like sand when apply your body creams, face mask or exfoliating cream on the skin.
As a make-up artist that uses GLITTERS, you are familiar with shiny little particles in those beauty care products. Those are MICROPLASTICS, that have successfully become a part of human daily lives and that of our marine life. It is believed that many fall off of decomposing plastic bottles and bags, and some are intentionally manufactured into some toothpastes and lotions. It is no news that manufacturers use plastic micro beads to improve flow and texture characteristics in products like tooth paste, shampoo and many more household products.
Hence, from Cosmetics to Clothing, from Industrial raw materials to Detergents, from Toothpastes to by-products of breakdown of larger plastics, from bottled water and pharmaceuticals products, scientists have found microplastics nearly everywhere, particularly in lakes, rivers, and aquatic animals.
Are Microplastics harmful?
Of course, Microplastics are considered hazardous, harmful to aquatic organisms that consume them as well as Humans that consume sea foods. They are considered to be of huge potential threat to both human and aquatic life. This harm can be attributed to the fact that Microplastics also act as carriers of other poisonous substances like DDT. The harm to aquatic life is passed on to humans or other organisms within the ecosystem when aquatic organisms consume microplastics and they enter into the food chain along with other poisonous substances contained in the microplastics.
Microplastics can be harmful to humans, as well as wildlife through:
· The physical hazards of ingesting plastic particles (fish, birds, and other animals can experience digestive obstruction, impaired reproduction, other adverse biological effects, and even death)
· The unhealthy additives found in plastic particles (some additives have been associated with cancer and endocrine disruption)
· The contaminants that accumulate on plastic particles (polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s), organochlorine pesticides, trace metals, and even pathogens have been found at high concentrations on microplastics).
But how does this happen?
Human beings consume fishes , fishes are gotten from the ocean, the ocean is the last sink for wastes such as microplastics that are found in our toothpaste, face masks, exfoliating creams, detergents and fabrics. What makes microplastics a serious concern is its stability. Microplastics aren’t decomposed by microorganisms. They break down into smaller pieces through sunlight and mechanical action but it takes a long time (up to a few hundred years) until they really disappear and are no longer potentially hazardous.
Beyond consumption of sea food, there are other perceived sources for ingestion of microplastic particles. A very ample example will be for Bottled Water.
InMarch 2018, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced a review into the potential risks of plastic in drinking water after a new analysis of some of the world’s most popular bottled water brands found that more than 90% contained tiny pieces of plastic. A previous study also found high levels of microplastics in tap water. In the new study, analysis of 259 bottles from 19 locations in nine countries across 11 different brands found an average of 325 plastic particles for every litre of water being sold. In one bottle of Nestlé Pure Life, concentrations were as high as 10,000 plastic pieces per litre of water. Of the 259 bottles tested, only 17 were free of plastics, according to the study.
How does Human influence the accumulation of Microplastics?
Some companies that produce cosmetics have replaced natural exfoliating ingredients with microplastics, usually in the form of “microbeads” or “micro-exfoliates”. These cosmetic products are typically composed of polyethylene, a common component of plastics. They are often found in face washes, hand soaps, and other such personal care products, so these micro beads are usually washed into the sewage system immediately after use. Their small size prevents them from fully being retained by preliminary treatment screens at wastewater plants, thereby allowing some to enter our oceans.
Small pieces of trash tossed into the street are often washed into storm drains during rain storms, which deposit the water — and the trash — into the sea. Rivers and other waterways can also wash trash into our bays and oceans. Industrial and urban areas also generate marine debris.
How do we as Human “ECOWARRIORS “curb the accumulation and adverse effects of Microplastics?
· Don’t litter, live an environmentally conscious life by embracing the principles of reduce, reuse and recycle. Endeavor to pick up the litter you see even if you didn’t drop them (YES, YOU CAN).
· Educate yourself about the garbage patches in our oceans and do your part to prevent them from growing. Educate your friends and colleagues or classmates if they’ll listen. Check around your trash can when you bring it in, and pick up anything that may have gotten loose, even if it’s not “yours.
· Take part in beach and other litter clean ups in communities around you
· Avoid products with microbeads before the product ban goes into effect.
How do I identify products with MICROBEADS?
Look for the words “polyethylene” or “polystyrene” on the ingredient label.
· Wear clothes made from cotton more often and try to avoid other synthetic fabrics less often. Synthetic clothing shed microplastics into the water with each washing. In fact, a synthetic jacket sheds about 2,000 pieces of plastic per washing.
· Close the lid on your trash and recycling carts when you place them at the curb.
· Carry and use reusable shopping bags. Say “no thanks” to single-use plastic bags.
Thank you for reading. Kindly drop your comments as I appreciate your feedback. Please check back soon for my new Environmental Series on “15 CURRENT GLOBAL ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES AND POSSIBLE WAYS TO SOLVE THEM”.
Temilade Salami is an Environmental Activist and Advocate, a Seasoned Poet and a Green Economy Policy Enthusiast. She uses Poetry as a tool for advocacy while leveraging on her writing skills to create awareness on key local and global environmental issues. She’s currently studying for a Bachelors Degree in Marine Biology at the University of Lagos. Contact her via Instagram at (@) temidpoet or via twitter (@) temidpoet_