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Microbeads: Hidden Plastics in Cosmetics (+ What We Can Do About It)

I thought microbeads were old news. We discovered a few years ago that chemical companies were putting little plastic beads in our toiletries and cosmetics, we got mad about it, we signed petitions and applied pressure to our various governments and microbeads were banned. Job done, right?

Apparently not.

I’ve put together a guide to microbeads and the state of play in 2019, and what you can do to spot them and avoid them.

What are Microbeads?

Microbeads are tiny solid plastic particles, measuring 1mm in diameter or less. They are deliberately added to cleaning products, skincare products and cosmetics to give exfoliating properties, create ‘gloss’ and as fillers to bulk out products.

They are a type of microplastic, a more general term given to tiny plastic particles less than 5mm in diameter.

Many of these microbead-containing products are designed to be rinsed off, meaning this plastic is designed to go down the drain. However, the small size of the beads means they are mostly not captured by water treatment plants, and end up in rivers, seas and oceans.

Once in the water, microbeads pose a threat to wildlife, who ingest the plastic particles. This builds as bigger fish eat smaller fish and so accumulate more plastic. If the plastic alone wasn’t enough concern, plastic actually binds to chemicals in the ocean (including POPs – meaning Persistent Organic Pollutants, or chemicals resistant to environmental degradation). As the plastic accumulates in the food chain, so do these POPs.

Remember who is top of the food chain? Humans (well, the ones that eat fish).

Aren’t Microbeads Banned?

There are some bans on microbeads in place but the exact rules vary, along with what’s banned and what’s not. Most bans actually apply to ‘rinse-off cosmetics’ only (South Korea ban all microbeads in cosmetics, and Canada have banned all microbeads smaller than 5mm).

Source: beatthemicrobead.org

You’ll spot that Australia doesn’t have a ban on microbeads in place. Instead the government opted for a voluntary agreement from industry to phase out microbeads. Accord Australia have been coordinating the phase out with their initiative BeadRecede.

Research in 2018 that looked at 4,400 products across 148 stores found that 94% of products available in Australia were microbead-free. That means 6% were not.

No microbeads were found in shampoos, conditioners, body wash or hand cleaners. The products that still contained microbeads? The top 5 were:

  • Foundation/blush
  • Skin cream/moisturiser
  • Eye make-up
  • Lip make-up
  • Facial scrubs.

What’s interesting to me about this list is that 4 of these product groups are not rinse-off. Which makes me wonder even with countries that have a microbead ban in place, if these products are still making their way to store shelves, into our homes and flushing down the drain?

How can we find out if there are microbeads in the products we buy?

How to Identify Microbeads

What would you guess the number of ingredients that are classed as microplastics to be? 10? 50? 100? The number seems to be growing all the time: it was estimated at 325 when the Australian data mentioned above was collected in 2018, but current estimates are that there are more than 500 microplastic ingredients widely used in cosmetics and personal care products.

500 different ingredients!

If you’d like to know whether any product you’re using contain microbeads, and what ingredients actually count as microbeads, the absolute best resource I’ve found is beatthemicrobead.org.

If you’d like to know the names of all these ingredients to check the products you have at home, Beat The Microbead have put together a ‘red list’ of known microplastic ingredients. (There’s also an ‘orange list’ of suspected ingredients, where there is not yet enough information.)

Among the most common microplastics ingredients are:

  • Polyethylene (PE)
  • Polypropylene (PP)
  • Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)
  • Nylon (PA)
  • Polyurethane
  • Acrylates copolymer.

Alternatively, they also have a search function on their website where you can search products in their database. Not to mention, there’s an app available on both Apple and Android.

Switching to Microbead-Free Products

If we find out (or suspect) that there are microbeads in our products, here’s three things we can do.

Simplify

When I went plastic-free, faced with the prospect of finding a plastic-free alternative for the bazillion products in my bathroom, I asked myself whether I actually needed all of these products I was buying. It turned out that many of them weren’t really necessary, just things I purchased because I liked the packaging or had seen an advertisement (no doubt promising some miracle).

You might find the same thing. You might decide that you actually don’t need that product at all.

Find Microplastic Free Alternatives

Beat the Microbead has a list of companies guaranteed to not use microbeads on their website. These are mostly big brand who use plastic and other single-use packaging, but they are a start.

Also, look for small and local producers. There are plenty of excellent small businesses making safe products, and hopefully you can track down something in your area. If you’re looking for make-up (which can be a bit harder to find), two brands I recommend are Dirty Hippie Cosmetics (Australia) and CleanFaced Cosmetics (USA).

Make Your Own Beauty Products

If you really want to know what’s going into your products, the best way to know for sure is to make your own. Body scrubs (one of the products still found to contain microbeads in the research) are easy to make from scratch by mixing something abrasive (sugar, salt, coffee grounds, ground oats, ground rice) into some oil.

Find more DIY scrub recipe ideas here.

Remember, it doesn’t have to be ‘all or nothing’. Deciding to make one product rather than buying the pre-packaged microbead-containing alternative is a great first step.

Plastics in cosmetics is a design error that is slowly getting the attention it deserves. If you want to be sure you’re not unwittingly taking part in this hidden form of plastic pollution, audit your current bathroom, beauty and cleaning products. Check the ingredients, and if you find any products that contain suspicious ingredients, make it a priority to track down a suitable swap or solution.

For every irresponsible brand there is another doing good. Let’s give them our money where we can, rather than funding businesses that pollute. Our choice and actions matter.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you live in a country that’s banned microbeads? Do you know which products are banned and which are not? Have you ever done an audit of the things you buy to look for microbeads? Are you going to do it now? Any good microplastic-free brands you’d like to recommend? Any other thoughts? Please share in the comments below!

Zero Waste Optimism (4 Tips for Staying Positive When The Planet Seems Doomed)

A question I’ve been asked a lot recently is “how do you stay positive?” It’s a fair question. After all, there are plenty of reasons we might despair. Pollution or litter or carbon emissions; the attitudes of governments and political leaders; or the lack of awareness, interest or action on the parts of businesses, organizations and even our friends and family.

Yes, it’s frustrating. Probably the most frustrating thing is not in seeing the problems, but in knowing that there are solutions and yet not seeing change being adopted on the scale it needs to be.

Despite this, I stay positive. That’s not to say I never have moments of doubt or despair, but on the whole, I’d say I’m an optimist. Here’s how I do it.

1. Optimism… or What?

I consider there to be three options. Optimism, indifference, or pessimism. Which translate as: we think that everything will be okay in the end, we simply don’t care, or we think that everything is doomed.

I’m not even sure that I consider this to be a choice. I do care: about the planet, about wildlife, about people, about fairness and equality and doing the right thing.

And if I do care, I can either think that everything will be okay, or that we’re doomed. I can either think that the planet is worth fighting for, that change is worth pursuing, that working towards making the world a better place is a goal worthy of my time and effort… or I can just give up.

And if I give up, if I turn my back on all the things that I care about: well, I don’t actually want to think about what that looks like. It’s not an option I want to entertain.

That’s not to say that I think I’m some kind of superhero or that the future of the planet is in my hands. I know I’m not the only one who cares, I’m not the only one trying to do what they can. It’s not to say that without me the planet is actually doomed (!).

But if there are two choices – one being we ‘win’, and start living sustainably on this one planet that we have – and the other being we ‘lose’, sea levels rise, the oceans fill with plastic and we make ourselves extinct – well, I know which team I want to be on.

Whatever happens, I need to be able to say, hand on heart, that I did something. Knowing that the only way to be on the winning team is to be a part of it keeps me optimistic.

2. Taking Action and Working on Projects

I find projects that get the message out into the community are the best way to keep myself motivated.

For the first six months that I went plastic-free I was very much focused on my own journey, learning skills and creating new habits for myself. After that, I was keen to figure out how to share my knowledge, get involved with the wider community… and I haven’t stopped since.

Over the next seven years, I started this blog and I started giving talks and running workshops. I got involved with my local council running a waste-free event, I worked on the Plastic Free July campaign. I co-started a community fruit tree project and community composting hub, and I set up a community dishes library.

None of these things are ground-breaking or world-changing, but they all contribute to bringing about change nonetheless. Connecting with others, sharing ideas, creating opportunity.

Even by sharing one blog post, or giving a talk to a handful of people, or starting a small project; you never know who you’re going to reach and what influence you’re going to have.

Ideas are like ripples and they spread. I share these things in the hope that others will adopt them, share them, make them better and together we will increase our impact.

Knowing that I’m contributing to something bigger than me and my personal waste or footprint helps keep me optimistic. And always having a project on the go, no matter how small, keeps my fire burning.

3. Remembering Where I Started

When it comes to staying positive, another thing that helps me is remembering where I started.

I’ve always considered myself to be someone who cared about the planet, but I know there was a time when:

  • I asked for an extra plastic straw in my drink;
  • I purchased fast fashion;
  • I snaffled all the freebies regardless of whether I’d use them or not or how pointless they were or how much packaging they came wrapped in;
  • I chucked every bit of food waste in the bin;
  • I was in love with recycling (and saw that chasing arrows symbol on any packaging as a ‘get out of jail free’ card absolving me of any personal responsibility);
  • I felt almost smug about the fact that I owned reusable shopping bags and only took a plastic bag when I needed something to line my bin.

(I’m sure there’s plenty more examples.)

I cared but I was totally disconnected to the impact my personal actions were having, and embarrassingly unaware that actually, my personal actions and my voice are exactly where my power comes from.

I thought it was up to others to change: governments, businesses, organisations. I didn’t realise that I have the power to influence, to champion, to hold to account, to share, and to take a better path every single day through the choices I make.

I believe that when you know better, you do better. If you don’t realise something is a problem, why would you do things differently?

I hold onto these memories of myself and know that if I can change, other people can change too. I like to believe the best of people, and I think that most people want to do the right thing. They just aren’t aware of the impact that their actions have, sometimes.

4. Looking back as well as forward

Lastly, I think it’s important not to focus on the task ahead so much that we forget to look back at what we have achieved and how far we have come. There’s been so much change in the last 7 years and when I think at how much perceptions have shifted, it feels incredibly humbling.

When I first took part in Plastic Free July in 2012, I was one of 400 participants. Last year 120 million people took part in 177 different countries.

Governments across the world are legislating to ban plastic bags, plastic cutlery, styrofoam, food waste to landfill and more.

Change is happening. I know that sometimes it doesn’t feel fast enough, but actually, it’s kind of incredible that we’ve done so much already.

When I think about how far we’ve come, I can only feel optimistic about what will happen in the future.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you consider yourself to be a pessimist or an optimist? What do you struggle with most? What tips do you have for staying positive? How has your outlook shifted over time? Anything else you’d like to add? Please share your thoughts below!

When Is A Plastic-Free Aisle Not Plastic-Free?

A supermarket aisle in the Netherlands made headlines last month, because it was the “world’s first plastic-free aisle”. I saw the headline, but I didn’t bother to read much further, expecting to see the kind of thing so many times before – neatly laid out rows of bulk bins, where customers can use paper bags or fill their own containers and thus avoid plastic packaging.

It was only when a reader shared one of the articles with me and asked for my thoughts that I actually looked at what was behind the headlines.

What I saw was not what I thought I’d see.

This is what the “plastic-free aisle” looked like:

No. Not what I was expecting either.

If there’s one thing that makes me mad, it’s misleading claims and incorrect science. (Okay, that’s two things, but close enough.) Seeing this aisle set alarm bells ringing in my curious mind.

Let’s look at the details.

The PLASTIC FREE™ Aisle: What Does It Really Mean?

The “plastic-free aisle” is more correctly called the PLASTIC FREE™ aisle. Specifically, it is a collaboration between Dutch supermarket chain Ekoplaza (who own 74 organic supermarkets in the Netherlands) and an environmental campaign group called A Plastic Planet. The clever branding was designed by London graphic design studio Made Thought.

The PLASTIC FREE™ name is a figurative trademark, meaning the stylisation and graphic design of the logo are protected. There is no scientific meaning attached to the name or trademark; it’s more like a brand name.

On their website, A Plastic Planet describes the two groups of materials they call PLASTIC FREE™:

“Bio-Materials: Materials include wood pulp, plant cellulose, food waste, grass, algae, and mushrooms. These materials can be made into trays, punnets and clear, flexible films that look and behave like conventional plastic but can be composted into biomass. A Plastic Planet supports compostable plastics that comply with the necessary certification standards: EN 13432 or OK Home Compostable.”

“Other Materials: Metal, paper, carton board and glass are also plastic free.”

In short, the PLASTIC FREE™ logo does not include uncertified biodegradable plastic, but does include certified compostable plastic.

Often companies who use compostable plastics try to distance themselves from conventional plastics by referencing their plant-based origins (using terms like cornstarch or sugar-based). Or they describe themselves as plastic-like, rather than saying they are plastic. However, compostable plastic is classified as plastic #7 on the ASTM International Resin Identification Coding System (RIC), which is used to identify plastic resins.

Find out more about compostable plastics here.

The Issues That The PLASTIC FREE™ Aisle Doesn’t Address

Certified compostable plastic is different to fossil-fuel based plastic in some ways, but not all. It is not without issues, either.

1. The Language is Confusing (and Potentially Misleading)

The language of plastics, bioplastics and compostable plastics is confusing for many. A Plastic Planet do a good job of outlining what they mean and don’t mean by PLASTIC FREE™ on their website.

But most people glimpsing the headline or even heading to the store won’t be visiting the website.

Even on the website, there’s some confusing inormation. For example, they feature a video with a supplier holding a green meat tray and saying that in 12 weeks, the tray will disappear. That’s impossible science. Compost, degrade, dissolve, evaporate – call it what it is. Nothing disappears.

The stories about the first PLASTIC FREE™ aisle in the media are not always accurate, either, as different meanings and interpretations are made.

Some reporting claims that all the plastic packaging is 100% compostable. Technically, products certified to EN13432 and Ok Home Composting standards are required to break down by a minimum of 90%, not necessarily 100% (the remainder is “residue”).

This matters, because people believe we have a perfect solution, which is not the case.

2. Plant-Based Compostable Plastic Still Creates Litter

One of the big issues with certified compostable plastic is that it is certified compostable under composting conditions. That is not the same as out in the open environment.

Certified compostable packaging is just as capable of causing litter, blocking a drain, suffocating an animal or being mistaken for food as a regular plastic packaging.

3. Compostable Plastic Doesn’t Break Down in the Oceans

No compostable plastic to date has been shown to break down in the marine environment.

As plastic packaging is lightweight, floats, blows in the wind and can be carried by animals, it ends up in the ocean. Compostable plastic is no different to regular plastic in these properties.

4. Compostable Plastic Needs to Be Composted

Compostable plastic needs to be composted to break down, but consumers are often not aware of this. Landfills do not have composting conditions.

Additionally, some commercial composting facilities do not permit compostable plastics, because they do not run their cycles long enough to actually break down the plastic.

As an example, if a green meat tray takes 12 weeks to break down, but the composting cycle only runs for 10 days, the resulting compost will still have green meat tray plastic pieces throughout.

Unless there are systems in place for consumers to compost their own packaging, or companies to accept this packaging for commercial composting, there’s limited value in selling products in compostable plastic.

5. It Doesn’t Reduce Resource Consumption

Whatever it’s made from, single-use packaging is still single-use packaging. On this scale, single-use packaging is a huge waste of resources.

Growing huge amounts of food (sugar, corn, tapioca) with the sole purpose of synthesizing it into packets so that food items can be neatly displayed with predetermined portions in perfect rows in the supermarket? The land, energy and carbon footprint of that is huge.

When there’s so many people in the world who don’t have enough to eat, there’s also an ethical question around using land and food on this scale to create packaging.

What A Plastic-Free Aisle Should Really Look Like

The answer to the problems of too much packaging, plastic in the ocean, litter and carbon emissions isn’t a different type of single-use packaging.

The answer is moving away from single-use packaging.

The answer is in the return of return-and-refill schemes, container deposits, bulk stores… and just not wrapping every single thing in a package regardless of whether it is actually necessary.

Plastic-free aisles already exist. Bulk stores around the world are demonstrating that real plastic-free aisles are possible. Milk is being sold from dispensers and bottles refilled. Fruit and veg shops are stocking produce without plastic.

The Source Bulk Foods has pioneered the plastic-free aisle in Australia, with more than 40 stores, and have recently expanded into New Zealand and the UK.

Plenty of fruit and veg stores (such as my local Swansea St Markets) have shown that it’s perfectly possible to sell fruit and vegetables without needing to package them.

Even my local (Coles) supermarket has a bulk aisle. Okay, so they haven’t ditched the plastic bags just yet, but it’s progress.

The answer isn’t trying to tweak the current system. The answer is in changing the system. Recognising that single-use packaging in any form is a waste, and trying to find solutions that mean no packaging at all.

The question then, is how do we make bulk stores and return-and-refill systems more accessible (location, practicality, affordability) to the masses?

Solutions already exist. Real solutions that focus on rethinking, reducing and reusing.

That’s where the focus needs to be. The more that these kinds of stores and practices are supported, the more they will grow, the more people they will reach, and the more change will happen.

If we really want to tackle the plastic pollution problem, this is what we need to be working on.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What does a plastic-free aisle look like to you? How do you feel about compostable plastic packaging? Do you have access to commercial composting facilities in your area? Where would you like to see change? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts below!

Finding Solutions to Plastic Pollution (How You Can Help)

One person can make a difference. I believe this, and I embrace it wholeheartedly. Knowing that my actions matter, that is what empowers and motivates me to strive to do a little better every day.

Whilst one individual can have an impact, when individuals get together… well, that’s when change really begins to happen! Collectively, our impact can be amplified. That’s what a movement is – a group of people, working together for the same outcome.

Plastic pollution and over-consumption of resources are both massive, complex issues. The problem isn’t going to be solved just because I no longer have a rubbish bin, or can fit my waste into a glass jar. It’s not going to be solved if 10,000 of us can all fit our waste into a glass jar, either.

It’s going to be solved when we all work together to share ideas, apply pressure to decision-makers and organizations, and offer solutions!

If you’d like to do more, and be part of a movement, here are some options. Whether it’s getting out into your local community, volunteering, joining a campaign, learning more or donating to an organization doing great work, there are plenty of possibilities. If you see something you like, see if there is something similar in your local area… or start your own group!

If you have any others you’d like to add, please let me know in the comments below : )

Citizen Science + Litter Apps

litter-apps-and-citizen-science-treading-my-own-path

Litter apps are a simple way to add any litter you pick up to a national or international database. Citizen science in action! Simply take a photo of what you pick up, and record the location, litter type and brand. This data is collected to identify the most commonly found brands and products, and problem hotspots. The data can be used to work with companies and organisations to find more sustainable solutions, and to influence politicians, councils and other decision-makers to make change.

– Litterati (US and Worldwide)

Litterati describe themselves as a community that’s identifying, mapping, and collecting the world’s litter. Based in America, they track plastic and other litter anywhere in the world.

Litterati App (iPhone only)

Website: www.litterati.org

– Marine Debris Tracker (US and Worldwide)

An American Debris Tracker app that collects marine debris data from all over the world, including 1200 locations in the USA.

Marine Debris Tracker App for Android / Marine Debris Tracker App for iPhone

Website: www.marinedebris.engr.uga.edu/

– Marine LitterWatch (Europe)

Monitors beach litter in Europe. The app was developed by the European Environment Agency to help aid data gathering in coastal areas.

Marine LitterWatch App for Android / Marine Litterwatch App for iPhone

Website: www.eea.europa.eu

– Tangaroa Blue (AU)

Whilst not an app, Tangaroa Blue’s Australian Marine Debris Database is the most comprehensive collection of marine debris data in Australia. All data can be submitted via this AMDI submission form: since 2004 over 2million pieces of debris have been recorded.

Website: www.tangaroablue.org

Litter Clean-Ups

beach-treading-my-own-path

Sure, it’s possible to just go outside your front door any time, and pick up litter. In fact, that is what many of these organisations encourage. But there’s also something nice about getting together with a group of like-minded individuals and making a much bigger impact.

– Responsible Runners (AU)

An Australian initiative to get runners and walkers clearing up litter. They organize weekly clean-up events around the country involving 30 minute litter picking, and have picked up 21 tonnes of rubbish to date. All rubbish is recorded, and the data is submitted to Tangaroa Blue Australian Marine Debris Database (see above).

Website: www.responsiblerunners.org

– Take 3 For The Sea (AU and worldwide)

An Australian movement that encourages everyone to simply take 3 pieces of rubbish with you when you leave the beach, river, or anywhere else. As well as running school education programs, they also offer a Guardian program for local groups to establish, and use social media to spread the #take3forthesea message.

Website: www.take3.org.au

– Sea Shepherd Marine Debris Campaign (AU)

In 2016, Sea Shepherd Australia announced a new marine debris campaign which involves organizing beach and river clean-up events, community engagement and education. At present this appears to be specific to Australia.

Website: www.seashepherd.org.au

– Ocean Conservancy (US)

An American not-for-profit organisation that promotes science-based solutions to protect the ocean. Ocean Conservancy organises the annual International Coastal Cleanup event (a global event), and helps individuals organise their own beach and river cleanups for other times of the year.

Website: www.oceanconservancy.org

– Two Hands Project (AU)

Two Hands Project embodies the spirit of international Clean Up Days, but asks – why not use your two hands and 3o minutes of your time to clean up on ANY day of the year? They occasionally run organized beach clean-ups, and offer secondary school education programs.

Website: www.twohandsproject.org

– Keep Australia Beautiful (AU)

Keep Australia Beautiful works towards a litter-free environment by running grass-roots programs in every state and territory in Australia. They run “Keep Austrlia Beautiful Week” annually, and assist in organising cleanup and other community events.

Website: www.kab.org.au

Campaigning

campaiging

Organisations often work on specific campaigns. Campaigns work towards a specific goal, such as changing legislation on particular issues, often by raising awareness and gaining the support of the public to apply pressure to decision-makers.

– Plastic Soup Foundation (NL)

Plastic Soup Foundation is a campaigning and advocacy group working towards eliminating plastic pollution from our oceans. Based in the Netherlands, they work on a number of campaigns including Reach for the Zero, Beat the Microbead and Ocean Clean Wash.

Website: www.plasticsoupfoundation.org

– Marine Conservation Society (UK)

The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) is a UK ocean protection charity. They campaign on a number of issues including banning the mass release of balloons and sky lanterns, microbeads and clearer labelling for wet wipes (to prevent them being flushed down the loo). They also run a Plastic Free June fundraising challenge.

Website: www.mcsuk.org

– Surfrider Foundation (US and Worldwide)

Surfrider Foundation is a campaigning organisation dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s oceans and beaches. Beginning in the USA 30 years ago, Surfrider Foundation has grown to 18 countries around the world, including Australia. Among other ocean-realted campaigning, they support local, regional, state and national campaigns on plastic pollution.

Website: www.surfrider.org
Surfrider Australia Website: www.surfrider.org.au

– Surfers Against Sewage (UK)

A UK environmental charity protecting the UK’s waves, oceans and beaches. Surfers Against Sewage campaign against marine litter, and recent campagins include “No Butts on the Beach”, “Return to Offender” (which has to be my favourite) and “Think Before You Flush“.

Website: www.sas.org.uk

– Story of Stuff (US)

The Story of Stuff project began as a series of education movies about the environmental impacts of “stuff”. As well as education, they now run campaigns fighting plastic pollution, including banning bottled water and banning the microbead.

Website: www.storyofstuff.org

– The Last Plastic Straw (US)

The Last Plastic Straw campaigns to get businesses to only give out straws on demand, and to use fully biodegradable alternatives to plastic straws. They also raise awareness of plastic pollution.

Website: www.thelastplasticstraw.org

Challenges

calendar

Collective challenges are a great way to raise awareness and build momentum on an issue, as well as creating community and inspiring further action.

– Plastic Free July (AU and Worldwide)

Plastic Free July is a month-long challenge to refuse and avoid single-use plastic. It’s what got me started on my plastic-free journey and has expanded from a local campaign with just 30 participants to a global initiative that spans almost 200 countries.

Website: www.plasticfreejuly.org

Marine Research and Education

Ocean Plastic Research Treading My Own Path

Expeditions and research bring in the real scientific data, and allow us to understand the wider impacts of plastic pollution. It is this knowledge that raises awareness and drives campaigns, education and action.

– 5 Gyres (US)

Founded in 2008, 5 Gyres is a non-profit organisation raising awareness about plastic pollution through science, art, education and adventure. They have been involved with campaigns including the “ban the microbead” campaign, and run programs and expeditions.

Website: www.5gyres.org

– Algalita (US)

Founded in 1994 by Captain Charles Moore, the man who discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Algalita have pioneered the study of plastic pollution in the marine environment. They focus on research, education and action, and lead marine expeditions.

Website: www.algalita.org

Umbrella Groups and Coalitions

lighthouse

Umbrella organizations provide resources and offer an identity to smaller organisations, whilst building a sense of community and inclusiveness. Umbrella organisations allow members to share resources and amplify their message, meaning increased effectiveness.

– Plastic Pollution Coalition (US)

The Plastic Pollution Coalition is a global alliance of individuals, organizations, businesses and policymakers working toward a world free of plastic pollution. Founded in 2009 and now with more than 400 member organisations (you can find a list of current members here), they provide education, scientific research and solutions for both individuals and organisations. The Education page is a wealth of useful information : )

Website: www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org

Now I’d love to hear from you! Are they any great organisations I’ve missed off the list? Any campaigns or groups I failed to mention? Any I’ve mentioned here that you are already involved with? Any that are completely new to you? Do you work with local groups in your area? Do you know about great work being done at grass roots level? I love to hear about others making a difference and creating positive impact so share away! Any other thoughts or comments, I’d love to hear those too, so please tell me in the space below!

Heard of Microbeads? There’s a Bigger Plastic Threat to our Oceans

There’s plastic in our oceans. We see it on the news, in magazine articles, on Facebook, or rather, we see the result: pictures of animals and birds tangled in fishing netting, trapped in plastic packaging, ingesting carrier bags and other floating plastic, or feeding plastic bottle tops and lighters to their young instead of food.

That’s just the plastic we see, but there is a lot more plastic in the ocean.

Plastic that’s too small for us to see. Microplastics.

(Officially, microplastics are plastics that measure 5mm or less, but often they are less than 1mm.) We might not be able to see them, but they still have a huge impact on the oceans. First up, they still get eaten by marine life. Small fish eat smaller pieces of plastic, and as we go up the food chain and these fish are eaten by bigger fish, the amount of plastic increases. If we eat fish, there’s a chance that this plastic is ending up on our plates.

The other big issue with plastics in the ocean, is that plastics are lipophilic, meaning they attract lipids and fats. (If you’ve ever used a plastic container to store something oily, you might have noticed that it’s very hard to get clean afterwards. That’s because plastic is attracted to the oil.)

It’s not just water and plastics and fish in the ocean. There are a lot of chemicals. Like POPs. They might have a fun name, but POPs are persistent organic pollutants: man-made chemicals that take a long time to break down. Chemicals like DDT, PCBs, brominated flame retardants and other pesticides. These chemicals might have been banned decades ago, but all rivers lead to the ocean, and they persist here.

They don’t just persist, they are attracted to the plastics in the ocean, so become concentrated here.

The smaller the plastic, the bigger the surface area in proportion, and the more POPs. This toxic combination is entering the food chain…and potentially ending up in our food.

Microbeads – a Threat to Our Oceans

Microbeads have been receiving a lot of attention recently, with organisations like 5 Gyres putting pressure on companies to stop using them and the Story of Stuff launching a Ban the Bead campaign to raise awareness. Microbeads are tiny balls of plastic added to cosmetic products to act as exfoliants, basically because they are cheaper than using natural ingredients like sugar, salt, coffee, apricot kernels…the list goes on. They aren’t just in face scrubs either – they are even found in toothpaste!

These tiny plastic beads are washed down drains when these products are used, and end up at water treatment plants… however, they are too small to be collected by filters, and so are washed into the ocean.

The Plastic Problem Hiding in the Closet

It’s easy to get mad about microbeads because it’s easy to see that they are completely pointless. Especially as a solution exists – there are natural alternatives out there with the same exfoliating properties, but with the added bonus of being biodegradable. However, there’s another problem that’s not so easy to see and can hardly be put in the “pointless” category…and it’s hiding in our closets.

Our clothes.

Most of us have items of clothing made of plastic. Think polyester, acrylic and nylon: these fabrics are made of synthetic (plastic) fibres. When we wash our clothes in a washing machine, some of these fibres are shed and go with the waste water to the water treatment plants. “Some” isn’t even close to the actual amount. Research conducted in 2011 showed that a single synthetic garment can release more than 1900 fibres per wash.

As with microbeads, these tiny microfibres, maybe less than 1mm in diameter, are too small to be collected by filters, and so are washed into the ocean. The study estimates that a large proportion of microplastic fibres found in the marine environment are the direct result of us doing our laundry.

Laundry Day, Tarifa Peter Morgan via Flickr

Every time we wash our clothes, we send thousands of plastic microfibres down the drain…and into the ocean.

Are Microfibres a Bigger Threat Than Microbeads?

If we talk in numbers, maybe not. The amount of microbeads in some products is staggering. A 2015 study found that 5ml of product can contain between 5,000 and 95,000 beads. Then again, if your laundry basket consists of four polar fleeces (which are the clothing item found to release the most fibres) that’s 7,600 fibres, and fibres are bigger than beads…

The issue isn’t so much about numbers. The issue is perception. Whereas microbeads are almost universally recognised as completely pointless (except maybe the pharmaceutical companies who stand to make bigger profits using them) and environmentally destructive, clothing made using plastic fibres is seen as a good thing.  An environmentally responsible thing, even.

Thinking that makes no sense? It’s because several brands have started using waste plastic to make clothes, recycling the plastic and transforming it into fibres that can be spun into garments. Taking plastic bottles, and turning them into T shirts. One of the most popular garments to make from these plastic fibres is polar fleece. Which, ironically, is the fabric that sheds the most microfibres upon washing.

These companies (and there are several, Patagonia being the most well known) promote this clothing as eco-friendly, claiming it is a proactive solution to plastic pollution, and even tallying the plastic bottles saved from landfill. Yet if these fibres are being released, unseen, into our waterways every time we do our laundry, isn’t the problem just being shifted from land to sea?

The perception is that by using a waste product (plastic bottles) to make a new product, we are using fewer resources and discarding less. Yet this system is flawed. It isn’t a cycle. Plastic bottles aren’t being turned into new plastic bottles, they are being turned into garments. New plastic bottles are made from virgin plastic. This isn’t discouraging people from purchasing new plastic bottles – if anything, it sends a message that it’s fine to consume single-use plastic bottles as the plastic is recycled afterwards. Similarly, it sends a message that it’s fine to buy new clothes, because they are made of recycled materials and are therefore eco-friendly. It reinforces the message that we can consume our way to sustainability.

Bales of Recyclables Walter Parenteau via Flickr

Just a fraction of the single-use plastic bottles collected every single day for recycling. Seriously, how many polar fleeces does the world need?

Want to Keep Our Oceans Plastic-Free?

Here’s a few ideas to get you started. Consume as little plastic as possible. Look for alternatives, and opt for reusables where you can. Dispose of what you do use responsibly. If you see plastic (or any litter), pick it up. Join a beach clean-up. Avoid plastic microbeads in beauty products. Add pressure to the pharmaceutical companies to remove microbeads from products by signing a petition or writing a letter. Choose natural fibres over polyester, acrylic and nylon, and try to limit the plastic in your laundry basket.

Whilst it’s great that companies are trying their hardest to keep plastics out of landfill, and looking for ways to create new and useful products out of waste items, plastic clothing in its current format is creating as many problems as it’s trying to solve. Trying to keep plastic out of landfill only to add to plastic pollution in the ocean isn’t the eco-friendly option. It is damaging the very environment it is trying to save.

Cover image credit: “Plastic Beaches” by Claire Sambrook via Flickr