Putting poison in the pantry: Plastic microfibres

All sorts of plastic get into waterways, pollute the ocean and poison sealife. There is growing awareness about the damage caused by plastic bag pollution and microbead pollution, but scientists have shown that much of the plastic in the ocean is actually plastic microfibres. In some waterways they make up close to three quarters of the plastic pollution.

Plastic “is like a little sponge for … chemicals”. Poisons stick to the outside of plastic. The smaller the pieces of plastic the more chemicals can stick to them. This is because the more bits a piece of plastic is broken into, the more outside surface there is for chemicals to stick to. Dr Chelsea Rochman found a chemical that was banned in the USA in the 1970s (DDT) on every piece of plastic she took out of the ocean. (DDT is still used in certain circumstances, but much less than before its hazards were known.)

Shellfish eats plastic, little fish eats shellfish and big fish eats little fish. The toxins of concern that stick to plastic don’t break down easily. Each time these poisons go up the food chain they get more concentrated.

Where do these microfibres in the ocean come from? They come from washing synthetic clothes. Addressing this problem will be a mammoth task, because synthetic clothes are so common.

About 0.7 grams of plastic microfibre end up in rivers, lakes and oceans when a polar fleece jacket is washed (there are about 30 grams in an ounce). People eat seafood that has eaten microfibres. These and other research findings are summarised in Microfiber Pollution and the Apparel Industry from the University of California Santa Barbera.

What can be done? Natural fibres were used for thousands of years before synthetic fibres were invented, but according to the Catalyst video, around 2/3 of our clothes are now synthetic. Plastic microfibres would be much harder to phase out than microbeads. Some solutions have been suggested, such as adding filters to washing machines, waterless washing machines, gadgets that catch the fibres in the wash, and new types of synthetic fibre.

Governments and industry have started to phase out microbeads, but they will have to become more aware of microfibre pollution if the plastic pollution problem is going to be solved. Consumers can play a role too, in the choices they make and in spreading awareness. Two advocacy groups, Plastic Soup Foundation and Parley for the Oceans, have started a campaign to raise awareness. In the clothing industry, Patagonia is supporting research by scientists at University of California Santa Barbera into the problem.

It’s not just seafood. Microfibres are also found on land. What’s in your food?

Published research:

Chelsea Rochman et al., University of California Davis 2015. Anthropogenic debris in seafood: Plastic debris and fibers from textiles in fish and bivalves sold for human consumption. Nature Scientific Reports 5, Article number 14340. http://www.nature.com/articles/srep14340 

Mark Browne et al., University of New South Wales 2011. Accumulation of Microplastic on Shorelines Woldwide: Sources and Sinks. Environ. Sci. Technol., 2011, 45 (21), pp 9175–9179 http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es201811s

Niko Hartline et al., University of California Santa Barbera 2016. Microfiber Masses Recovered from Conventional Machine Washing of New or Aged Garments. Environ. Sci. Technol., 2016, 5021 pp 11532–11538 http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.est.6b03045

Other links:

Microfiber pollution and the apparel industryresearch summary (research. http://brenmicroplastics.weebly.com/project-findings.html) and a literature review (http://brenmicroplastics.weebly.com/microplastics-pollution.html) of other


Can you tell if that product contains microbeads?

Maybe cosmetics with microbeads are easy to spot because it’s proudly written on the label. Like this one:


Why would you want to know? Microbeads are tiny plastics that are polluting the oceans and waterways. Once they’re in the ocean they don’t go away. Poisons stick to them, and these poisons get into the wildlife that eats them. There’s more detail in a previous post.

But they’re not always the company’s selling point.  On the face of it this one is all natural and wholesome.

Hmmm - its green and you can see little black bits of exfoliating kiwi fruit seed, right? Wrong.


Hmmm – it’s green and you can see little black bits of exfoliating kiwi fruit seed, right? Wrong!

Check the ingredients list.


Polyethylene is plastic (i.e. microbeads) and it’s there, near the top of the ingredients list, and kiwifruit extract is much further down, a few before the chromium oxide greens. And where’s the aloe? (Ingredients are listed in order, from what it contains the largest amount of, to what is present in the smallest amount.)

What about those seedy bits?  I took a closer look with a simple low-powered microscope.


These were big dark microbeads and there lots more smaller clear ones.

Look out for polyethylene in your cosmetics. You can find out about other plastics that are used for microbeads in my last post or The Story of Stuff.

Putting poison in the pantry


Putting poison in the pantry: Plastic microbeads

Plastic microbeads are found in many cosmetics, and they get into oceans and waterways. Environmentalists are alarmed at how they’re accumulating and the damage they’re causing. These plastics don’t break down, and they’re eaten by fish and other aquatic animals. What’s more, these pieces of plastic are like magnets to many chemical poisons. These poisons can end up in animals at the top of the food chain. Like us.

Politicians and policy-makers have even been convinced to take action. In the USA microbeads will be banned in cosmetics from 2017. Other countries are thinking about a ban. In Canada microbeads are now officially toxic (i.e. poisonous). Some cosmetics companies and supermarkets are phasing out microbeads in their products.

But you can do your bit NOW – you can make sure you don’t use products with microbeads. Plastic microbeads are found in cosmetics such as toothpaste, and exfoliants like facial scrubs. Don’t assume it’s safe if “microbeads” isn’t proudly announced on the label. Look for scientific code for plastic, for example polyethylene (PE), HDPE, polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), nylon etc, polyamide, polyesters, polystyrene, and polyvinyl chloride, which might be written in teeny tiny print in the  ingredients list, if an ingredients list is required in your country. Flora and Fauna International and the Plastic Soup Foundation have produced apps and websites that can tell you if a product is free from plastic.

There are safe alternatives. Facial scrubs that use natural exfoliants like apricot kernels have been around for far longer than those using plastic. Plant products are biodegradable – they can be destroyed by natural processes, whereas plastics like PE don’t disappear.


By University of Exeter from United Kingdom (Andrew Watts Face to Face with Plastic) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By University of Exeter from United Kingdom (Andrew Watts Face to Face with Plastic) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Andrew Watts (University of Exeter, UK): “This is an image of a plastic microbead from a facewash, taken via scanning electron microscopy; it is about 0.5mm wide. Microbeads are used for their exfoliating properties; many people don’t even know they are there. The major problem is they wash down the drain, pass through sewage works and into the sea and are ingested by marine animals. My work here in Exeter is to assess the effect this is having. Plastic microbeads are used as they are cheaper than more natural alternatives. They have been recently banned in many states of America and there are calls for the UK to follow suit. To see if your facewash contains plastic microbeads, check the ingredients list for Polyethylene or Polypropylene. Alternatively download the ‘beat the microbead’ app.”  




Kosuke Tanaka and Hideshige Takade. 2016. Microplastic fragments and microbeads in digestive tracts of planktivorous fish from urban coastal waters. Nature Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 34351 http://www.nature.com/articles/srep34351

Oyster reproduction is affected by exposure to polystyrene microplastics. Sussarellou R et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 2016.  http://www.pnas.org/content/113/9/2430.abstract

Microplastic articles threaten fish larvae. Koffmar 2016 (Uppsala University) http://www.uu.se/en/media/news/article/?id=6752&area=2,5,10,15,16,19,34&typ=artikel&lang=en

Environmentally relevant concentrations of microplastic particles influence larval fish ecology. Lonnstedt et al. Science 2016. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/352/6290/1213.long

Note re this article: Claim and counter-claim – This microplastic study reported in Science was recently the subject of a scientific misconduct investigation at the authors’ university (http://retractionwatch.com/2016/08/02/high-profile-science-paper-on-fish-and-plastics-may-earn-notice-of-concern/ AND http://retractionwatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Uppsala-letter2.pdf) and therefore also an Expression of Concern by the publishing journal, Science. The authors have been cleared: http://retractionwatch.com/2016/09/20/inquiry-finds-no-evidence-of-misconduct-in-high-profile-science-paper-flagged-by-allegations/

Microplastic pollution in the surface waters of the Laurentian Great Lakes. Eriksen M et al. Marine Pollution Bulletin 2013. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025326X13006097

Microplastic beads: how your exfoliating scrub might be harming the ocean. http://www.abc.net.au/environment/articles/2014/09/10/4084109.htm

Plastic microbeads in products and the environment. New South Wales Environment Protection Authority 2016. http://www.epa.nsw.gov.au/resources/waste/plastic-microbeads-160306.pdf

The Good Scrub Guide. Tanya Cox – Flora and Fauna International. http://www.fauna-flora.org/initiatives/the-good-scrub-guide/


Plastic microbeads: Ban the Bead! The Story of Stuff 2016. http://storyofstuff.org/plastic-microbeads-ban-the-bead/

Beat the Microbead has a few links and summaries: https://www.beatthemicrobead.org/en/science

IMAGE AND CAPTION By University of Exeter from United Kingdom (Andrew Watts Face to Face with Plastic) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APlastic_microbead_Andrew_Watts_research.jpg


Killing our passion for daily plastic it will help the climate and the environment

It is now a month since the meeting in Paris to discuss how the planet would face the here to stay climate change.

There has been a unanimous decision to keep the temperatures no higher than an average of two degrees Celsius. Even better, the idea is to try to keep it no more than 1.5 0C. Temperatures have already rose nearly 1 0C from pre-industrial times.

So, if the world wants to keep the temperature at this low there is need to act fast. It will take a lot of effort from every one in the planet.

All of us can start today. Have you given a thought about all the plastic around you? It is made from petroleum, so if we use less plastic, less greenhouse gases will gone into the atmosphere.

Around 120 plastic bottles for every single person per year in the USA finds its way in the trash apart from those that are send to the recycling facilities. Not counting the plastic bags, cutlery, drinking pipes, pieces of toys and more, much more. Worst, this is just the USA figure for plastic bottle.

The USA is only the 20th more plastic polluting country in the world. The developing economies are dumping much more per capita. All in all, the 7 billion inhabitants of the planet are dumping 5-14 billion tonnes of plastic every year in the oceans. Well, a bit more every year that goes by. The rate of plastic dump in the oceans is on a steep raise.


Is this one's dream of a vacation in the tropics near the seaside?

Is this one’s dream of a vacation in the tropics near the seaside?


The Great Pacific Garbage patch extend is difficult to know. Conservative estimate figures say that is of similar to the size of Texas. Some argue it is more. But everybody agrees it is the largest landfill in the world.

Each time you buy something opt for the item with least plastic packing. Think if you really need the plastic bottle. Apart from helping keeping the planet on track to avoid catastrophic consequences with increasing temperatures, you will be helping decreasing pollution that affects a large number of marine species. That affects us when we eat the fish that ate plankton that ate plastic.

Here a short and poetic take of the real problem in one of the most pristine places in the world.