Microplastics pose significant danger to marine life

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Microplastics have been in the headlines since a few months now as more and more researchers look into the danger these ‘microbeads’ pose on nature especially marine animals.

In a new study by researchers at Plymouth University it has come to light that microplastics are present in huge amounts in everyday cosmetic and cleaning products and these are released to the environment through our draining systems thereby threatening marine life.

Researchers have shown almost 100,000 tiny ‘microbeads’ – each a fraction of a millimetre in diameter – could be released in every single application of certain products, such as facial scrubs.

Though sewage waste is treated before it is released into rivers and oceans, the size of these microbeads makes them escape the treatment plants and their filters making it particularly difficult to stop them from entering our natural water bodies.

According to the study, published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, researchers estimate that based on their calculations as estimated 80 tonnes of unnecessary microplastic waste is entering the sea every year from use of these cosmetics in the UK alone.

PhD student Imogen Napper, leader of the study, said that it was shocking to see the quantity of microplastics apparent in these everyday cosmetics. Currently, there are reported to be 80 facial scrubs in the UK market which contain plastic material, however some companies have indicated they will voluntarily phase them out from their products.

Napper added that there is little we can do as consumers. One of the primary uses of microplastics is as replacement to natural exfoliating materials in cosmetics and have been reported in a variety of products such as hand cleansers, soaps, toothpaste, shaving foam, bubble bath, sunscreen and shampoo.

With multiple previous studies suggesting that amount of plastics in marine waters is increasing, around 700 species of marine organism being reported to encounter marine debris in the natural environment, and plastic debris accounts for over 90 per cent of these encounters.

For this study, researchers chose brands of facial scrubs which listed plastics among their ingredients, and these were subjected to vacuum filtration to obtain the plastic particles.

Subsequent analysis using electron microscopy showed that each 150ml of the products could contain between 137,000 and 2.8million microparticles.

Professor Richard Thompson, who has been studying the effects of litter in the marine environment for over 20 years, warns that these plastic microbeads are causing unnecessary contamination of the oceans. With microplastics now entering the marine food chain, they can be ingested by fish and shellfish and there is evidence from laboratory studies of adverse effects on marine organisms.