Microplastics: What Can you Do?
by Heather Smith on Jan 18, 2022
Plastic is the most common debris found in our lakes and oceans. Since the 1950s, over 9 billion tons of plastic have been produced worldwide. On average, only 9% of plastic is recycled.
Whatever is left over pollutes our landfills and oceans and takes over 500 years to disappear. It doesn't remain in its original state for those 500 years though, it breaks down into smaller and smaller particles.
It's estimated that over 1 BILLION plastic toothbrushes get thrown away PER YEAR in North America. Imagine! Something as simple as switching to biodegradable, bamboo toothbrushes could make a huge impact.
What Are Microplastics?
When plastic pieces are smaller than 5mm (1/5 of an inch), they are considered microplastics. Many of these come from the breakdown of large plastic garbage. Another major source of microplastics are microbeads that are manufactured and added to beauty products as exfoliants and some tooth-polishes.
In the marine environment, visible microplastics are mistaken for food by fish and birds. Smaller particles can bypass water filtration systems. As they get even smaller, microplastics are expelled from the ocean and become dust that is carried by the air and then ingested or inhaled by humans and animals.
As the particles get even smaller, they are called nanoplastics. These are able to cross cell membranes and accumulate in body tissues and organs.
Are Microplastics in Everything?
Sadly, the answer is probably yes. They're in the dust we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat.
It's been documented in animal studies that mother rats can inhale nanoplastics that will eventually be found in the tissues of their offspring.¹ Recently, the first reported nanoplastics were detected in human placental tissue.² While the full extent of the health effects for humans, animals, and ecosystems is not known, this is alarming and it is impossible to stop without major, global interventions that will take years.
Much work has been done to make the plastics we use as safe as possible (e.g. making them BPA free), but the effects of any changes will not be seen for generations to come.
BPA is an industrial chemical that has been used in plastic production since the 1960's. It is known to enter the human body through diet as it leaches into food, particularly at higher temperatures. It has been detected in breastmilk as well as human tissue.
There is controversy about how toxic it is. Due to plastic use and pollution, it has become ubiquitous in our environment, so controlling exposure for the purposes of research is nearly impossible in human trials. Consumers have abandoned it, so most containers are now BPA free due to purchasing pressures (it is officially banned for use in baby bottles, but not much else).
Though the full extent of long-term health effects may never be fully known, having plastic chemicals accumulate in our foods, drinking water, and body/tissues is harmful.
It is a long-term, generational problem that needs urgent action.
Various countries have begun to officially ban the intentional manufacturing of microplastics used as ingredients in beauty products (primary microplastics). This is estimated to be able to reduce production by up to 42 000 tons each year!
Unfortunately, this will not address the enormous volume of microplastics created by the breakdown of plastic waste (secondary microplastics). Since only about 9% of the 9 billion tons of plastic produced since the 1950s has been recycled, we need to focus on eliminating plastic waste, not just changing the polymers used.
Microplastics and the Cosmetics Industry
The breakdown of unrecycled plastic waste is the largest contributor to microplastics and there is no shortage coming from the cosmetics industry and skincare containers.
The steps taken to ban the production and sale of products containing microbeads (ie. scrubs) will have an enormous impact. However, if you dig a little bit deeper you will realize that doesn't tell the whole story.
While microbeads may have been phased out, microplastics still exist in massive quantities in skincare products, makeup, and personal care items like toothpaste. The reason is because these microplastic chemicals are created for specific purposes in products - they are polymers used to enhance the cosmetic application and feel of the products.
Not all polymers are microplastics, but the ones that do not biodegrade are. Sometimes they are even liquids.
There is considerable debate in the cosmetics industry about what is a microplastic and what isn't, for good reason:
It is very difficult to get luxurious looking and feeling emulsions and gels (think toothpaste, cream, lotion, serum, masks) without the use of polymers. Difficult, but not impossible.
These cosmetic chemicals are used to thicken, modify texture, and enhance emulsions and have names like: acrylate, copolymer, crosspolymer, PVC, nylon, carbomer. There are over 500 of them. Though they are not bead-like particles, they are microscopic, not readily biodegradable, and remain persistent in the environment (particularly the waterways). This app is working to increase awareness.
Is it possible to create premium, luxurious textures in cosmetics without using a single one of these ingredients?
Yes! Microplastic-free skincare is possible and should be accessible to all shoppers.
Microplastics: What Can You Do?
One line of thinking is that the damage is already done. While this is probably true to at least some extent, I refuse to accept that change can't have an impact.
Another line of thinking is that individuals making individual choices can't have a significant enough impact because the largest corporations control all the production (and the narrative). Again, also probably true. But again, I refuse to throw up my hands in defeat.
Learn and Be Informed:
- Plastics are all polymers (long chains of chemical subunits)
- Traditional plastics are derived from petroleum, which is non-renewable
- Bioplastics are made from renewable resources, but this does not mean that they are biodegradable
- The first bioplastic (plant-based polymer) was synthesized in 1926, but they have not gained widespread use due to production costs and a lack of consumer and regulatory pressure
The term biodegradable is often misused or misunderstood. When labeling is not clear, containers end up in the wrong place. There is zero standardization or regulation around the use of the word biodegradable, so consumer awareness is critical. To get you started, we've written primers on both bioplastics and biodegradability here on our blog.
Responsible and sustainable companies need to go beyond simple labeling to provide many more details to consumers, especially regarding how best to dispose of their packages when used. Smart and responsible consumers need to dig a bit deeper if they are selecting a product based on eco-friendly claims, especially if the exact details aren't already provided by the supplier.
What About Plastic Skincare Containers?
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
By far, the greatest impact you can have is to REDUCE your use of plastic. Do not rely on new materials. Reuse what you can as many times as possible. Recycle everything else you, but according to the proper methods.
Refillable products are another option that has merit, but the net reduction in plastic is low unless implemented broadly.
Activism takes time and energy. However, that's where real change can occur. Local and national governments can force change through legislation (think single-use-plastics band).
- Microplastics get into our food, water, and bodies
- Being informed and knowing the products that you're using and how to dispose of them properly is critical
- Reducing and reusing are far more likely to have the greatest benefit overall!
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
European Union Chemicals Agency
The Plastics Industry
Hesler M, Aengenheister L, Ellinger B, Drexel R, Straskraba S, Jost C, Wagner S, Meier F, von Briesen H, Büchel C, Wick P, Buerki-Thurnherr T, Kohl Y. Multi-endpoint toxicological assessment of polystyrene nano- and microparticles in different biological models in vitro. Toxicol In Vitro. 2019 Dec;61:104610. PMID: 31362040.
Ragusa A, Svelato A, Santacroce C, Catalano P, Notarstefano V, Carnevali O, Papa F, Rongioletti MCA, Baiocco F, Draghi S, D'Amore E, Rinaldo D, Matta M, Giorgini E. Plasticenta: First evidence of microplastics in human placenta. Environ Int. 2021 Jan;146:106274. PMID: 33395930.