But not everyone knows that plastic is also literally all over us, and even in us. Many shampoos, eye liners, lip glosses, skin creams, and toothpastes are manufactured with tiny balls of polyethylene and propylene that make that products –- and us -- look shinier and feel smoother, according Dr. Kirk Havens, Director at the Coastal Watersheds program Virginia Institute of Marine Science of the College of William & Mary.
The problem is, these microbeads of plastic -– a fraction of a millimeter in size -- do not dissolve in water or the environment, Dr.Havens said.
“Because it’s a non-degradable plastic, it basically will persist for a very, very long time,” Dr. Havens said. “And it’s so small, when it gets washed down your sink, it simply goes through your septic system and a lot of times it goes through the wastewater treatment plants and out into the marine environment.”
Microplastic particles also end up in bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay or the oceans when polyester or polar fleece clothing is washed, which can release plastic fibers. The smashing of waves also can break plastic trash into tiny bits. Once out in the environment, these microplastics can absorb industrial pollutants like PCB’s and dioxins, Dr. Havens said. They can become like little pills of chemicals that are then consumed by worms, mussels, crabs, fish, and eventually, the people who eat them.
What is the health effect of this?
“I don’ t think it’s quite clear yet,” Dr. Havens said. “It can’t be good…. It’s quite possible that they pass, pretty quickly, through our system. But certainly anything that can have any types of organic pollutant associated with it needs to be scrutinized pretty carefully.”
Dr. Havens and colleagues recently received a federal grant to investigate biodegradable alternatives for these microplastics. A recent article in Bay Journal highlighted their work. It is possible that the personal care products industry could easily replace the existing microparticles with versions that break down in the environment, preventing any pollution problems.
“We have particular polymers that we are working with, which are called polyhydroxyalkanoates or PHAs for short, and they are actually produced by bacteria from plant material," Dr. Havens said. "They have many of the properties that the plastics do…and so we are working with them as a potential substitute for the type of microspheres or microbeads that are used now."
One thing that is interesting about this new polymer is that, once it hits the water, it is consumed by bacteria. Bacteria produced it to store carbon, and bacteria can break it down again.
Dr. Havens and colleagues will be testing this alternative polymer in wastewater treatment plants, and in the environment, to see how quickly bacteria eliminates it.
Why is this important? One question about existing microplastics is whether worms, mussels and other creatures suffer by eating bits of plastic they think are food.
“As you take in things that you can’t utilize, it takes up space for something that would actually be nutritious for you,” Dr. Havens said. “So that could be a malnutrition type of system. There could be blockage which would be a little bit more severe. So it certainly has the potential to impact the health of animals that are consuming it.”
Larger plastic debris –- including balloons, fishing lines, and grocery bags – pose a more obvious threat to marine and bird life. Small galaxies of plastic trash swirl in the Pacific Ocean. Plastic bottles and cups blanket Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and other urban areas after rain storms. Osprey chicks can strangle on plastic cords their parents bring into the nest, and sea turtles sometimes gobble up and choke on plastic bags they mistake for jellyfish.
Dr. Joel Baker, a professor of environmental science at the University of Washington, Tacoma, studies microplastics in the oceans. He said that the concentration of microplastics in the world’s oceans and bays today appears to be fairly low at this time, so that it is not an immediate threat to the health of animals or people. However, he said if industries keep churning out plastic-laced consumer goods, eventually our planet’s waters could become an unhealthy plastic soup.
“That’s the concern – is that, as far as we know, the lifetime of plastic in the ocean is, for all practical purposes, infinite,” Dr. Baker said. “ There are really no known chemical, physical, biological processes that remove plastic from the oceans. “
The Marine Conservation Society and other environmental groups have called for a ban of microplastics in personal care products. In response, the company Unilever, which manufactures Dove soap and Axe deodorants, among other products, recently announced that it will phase out its use of microplastics by 2015.
Perhaps more companies will follow, and hopefully others will find alternatives that break down more easily in the environment.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photo at top of plastic debris on beach from VIMS/Joe Dowling, Sustainable Coastlines, Marine Photobank)