News Ticker

Microbeads, macro problems

by Katherine McDonnal, Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of gentlemanrook (originally posted to Flickr as Plastic Pellets)

Americans use 2.5 million bottles of plastic every hour, generate 10.5 million tons of plastic, and dump 14 billion pounds of trash, much of it plastic, in the oceans each year. Plastic bottles, bags, and other types of waste accumulate and harm both the wildlife and humans, damaging the ecological stability of the planet.

To reduce the amount of pollution, President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, a decree that placed a ban on the sales of items containing synthetic microbeads, on December 28. This act is to be implemented in 2017.

Microbeads are tiny bits of plastic, no bigger than a grain of sand and normally less than 5 millimeters. They are usually found in toothpastes, body scrubs, face scrubs, and hand lotions.

Microbeads are harmful not only to marine life and wildlife, but to humans as well. Because microbeads are so small, hence the term “micro,” water filtration and sewage treatment plants are unable to filter them out. They flow through sewage systems and around the world before eventually making their way into our seas and oceans. Once in our oceans, plankton and other micro organisms confuse them for food, then consume them. Because plastic is unnatural, they cannot rid themselves of the plastic through digestion. Consequently, other animals that rely on plankton for food eat this as well, and in time, this plastic may end up on our sushi plates through fish.

Entanglement and indigestion are the top ways that plastic pollution brings harm to marine and wildlife. In marine life, plastic bags may be mistaken for jellyfish, making plastic pollution very dangerous.

“Marine life is threatened by various types of pollution, including oil spills and toxic wastes. Plastic pollution, in particular has endangered thousands of marine species. Plastic debris injures and kills marine species as they often get entangled in plastic debris. Seabirds that feed on the ocean surface are especially prone to mistakenly consuming the plastic debris,” said Grace Chiang, senior in Leigh’s environmental club.

Author William Rathje of “Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage” has shown that when taken from landfill, 1960s newspapers have remained intact and readable, showing that plastics, paper, and even bio degradable products do not decompose in today’s landfill.

“Instead of building up in landfills, as non biodegradable products do, the biodegradable material can break down naturally into organic compounds. While biodegradable plastics are better than non biodegradable plastics, once they are in the ocean, the UV and oxygen exposure is reduced. As a result, the biodegradable plastics still take a long time to break down and pose a threat to marine species,” said Chiang.

There are several ways we can help the problem of plastic pollution. The price of not recycling plastic bags is higher than recycling them. Recycling can minimize the amount of waste going towards landfills. As far as microbeads go, many people like the feeling of these exfoliating beads, but they can easily be substituted. Natural remedies include, but are not limited to, sugar or salt scrubs, bamboo, crushed walnuts, or oatmeal. Bringing reusable grocery bags, using plastic containers instead of sandwich bags, or buying in bulk are a few more ways to reduce plastic pollution.

“Don’t buy things with excessive packaging! For example, toilet paper that is individually packaged, do you really need that extra layer? Also, invest in long-term products that you know you can use for a long time. Example, instead of using ziplock for your sandwiches, invest in a sturdy lunchbox.  Don’t litter! Everything on the ground eventually ends up in the ocean.  Perhaps the best thing to do would be to spread the word about this issue so that more people would be aware,” said Si-Inn Rho, senior also in Leigh’s environmental club.

“Furthermore, getting involved in beach or river cleanups, recycling as much as possible, and properly disposing waste can reduce plastic pollution,” said Chiang.

Recycle, reuse, reduce.