Plastic is all around us in modern life, as we drink from plastic bottles, type love notes on plastic keys, and celebrate sacred holidays by wrestling with plastic packaging.
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.