Today I am going to talk about a topic close to my heart. Microplastics. Now when you hear this word you probably think of the beads that can be found in many facial scrubs and body washes. It is true that these beads are microplastics, but what I want to discuss are the microplastics that are from single-use macroplastic.
Reduce, reuse and recycle?
First we need to address what the words single-use, recyclable and reusable mean. This is a conversation that has happened more than once at work as a colleague (rightly so) argues that no plastic is recyclable. The term recycled means that it can be used again, and again, and again. Like, for instance, metal and glass. Plastic, when (if it can be) ‘recycled’ is made into cheaper, single-use plastic that cannot be used again. So in a sense, this means that plastic should be described as ‘reusable’ and not recyclable.
reusable can also extend to items made of plastic such as cups, containers, bowls, knives and forks, for example. All of these are made from plastic and can be reused. However, what happens to these items when they break down or are thrown away?
Think of the fish!
Macroplastic waste makes up approximately 10% of landfill, and approximately 10% of marine waste. Overtime, these plastics degrade due to UV exposure, wave action and turbulence, into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic. Not only does this result in ocean waste, but additives from the broken-down microplastic can leach additives that may be toxic. The small size of these microplastics means that they become bioavailable for marine life.
Studies have shown that marine organisms readily take up microplastics, and plastic debris has been found in the guts of fish and marine birds since the 1970s.
Think about it, plastic is durable and easily made. Because of the process to make microplastic, more and more microplastics are making it into the oceans and water ways as our macroplastic use increases. It is still not clear what the impact of microplastics are on freshwater systems.
Of course, steps have been taken to reduce single-use plastic waste, such as biodegradable plastic bags. These generally consist of cornstarch and some other composites that have a rapid degradation process, but did you know that while the starch will decompose, the synthetic components do not, and end up breaking down into microplastics?!
So what is the solution?
For me, it has been trying to reduce and eliminate my plastic consumption. This means buying items only in glass, paper or metal; buying food items such as rice, coffee, pasta and flour in bulk and placing into my own canisters; using solid shampoo that looks like a bar of soap, and, using a bamboo toothbrush.
My attempt at “zero waste” for both the kitchen and bathroom. It has been a process of trial and error, such as finding a moisturiser that I like and deciding that I don’t like the solid toothpaste.
A lot of people think that they can’t make a difference, but I already have friends who have started making active decisions to not buy items at the supermarket that are wrapped in multiple layers of packaging. While they are not completely “zero waste”, they are making an active decision to reduce their plastic waste. To me, this is the most important thing, making an active decision and considering where your waste goes.
It can be a daunting process to try to eliminate plastic from our everyday lives, but it is not impossible. We have to think longterm for the health of the oceans and marine life.
Cole, Matthew, et al. “Microplastics as contaminants in the marine environment: a review.” Marine pollution bulletin 62.12 (2011): 2588-2597.
Claessens, Michiel, et al. “New techniques for the detection of microplastics in sediments and field collected organisms.” Marine pollution bulletin 70.1 (2013): 227-233.