Have you ever believed in something so completely, only to have a sudden, rip-the-carpet-out-from-underneath-you moment? I know twelve-year-old me did the day I found out that the little, squishy balls of plastic floating in my face wash were actually dangerous vehicles for toxins that often ended up in the ocean, harming the ecosystems that I loved.
That’s right, folks. We’re talking microplastics.
What I didn’t know the day I selected my first face wash from CVS was that I wasn’t the one really deciding at all. I mean, c’mon. When giving a ten-year-old the choice between a neon orange facial scrub boasting “exfoliating bursting beads” and the boring old CVS brand, what kid wouldn’t go for the pizzaz?
That’s what marketers for companies like Clean & Clear rely on: flashy products that in no way suggest their potential harm to unsuspecting customers. That’s why the facts about hot-button issues like pollution are important; they allow us, the consumers, to make the most informed decisions for ourselves, our families, and our planet. The bewitching ‘bursting beads’ that captivated my ten-year-old mind were actually tiny bits of plastic called ‘microbeads’ used in many common cosmetic products and face washes since their introduction in 1972.
A microbead is defined as a small bit of manufactured plastic no larger than one millimeter. Often, they are too small to be captured by waste treatment plants, and end up in our waterways--and even our food. Once these beads hit the water, they act like little sponges, soaking up nasty toxins like flame retardants and other chemicals. When marine life mistakes these beads for food, it becomes infected with the highly concentrated toxins. 5 Gyres, an organization dedicated to fighting plastic pollution, claims that one single microbead can be one million times more toxic than the water around it.
According to NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, marine life can mistake these small beads and other plastics like it for food. Once ingested by small ocean life, these tiny bits of toxins work their way up the food chain through a process called biological magnification, during which these poisonous substances become increasingly more concentrated and dangerous to higher order organisms-- like humans. Microplastics have been found in twelve out of the twenty five most important species of fish to global marine fisheries, posing a direct health threat when the toxins from these plastics leach into the food we eat (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). So, even though you may think those tiny beads in your hand scrub went away when you rinsed them down the sink, really, they may come back to you someday in the form of a steaming plate of seafood. Yum.
Microbeads, however, are not the only culprits of environmental insensitivity. Pretty much anything that claims to be ‘disposable’- water bottles, toys, take-out containers- has the ability to break down into harmful microplastics. Although there are an estimated 5.25 trillion particles of plastic floating in our ocean, many pressing questions are still unanswered, increasing the risk that microplastics pose to our health.
And these suckers aren’t going anywhere; microplastics don’t biodegrade, but rather keep getting broken up into smaller and smaller pieces the longer they are exposed to the sun, a process called ‘photodegradation’. That’s why is is vital to act now in order to curb the plastic tide.
This being said, many people find it easy to ignore the issue, using the ‘out of sight, out of mind mentality--these plastics are affecting the open ocean, so why worry about them here in Norwell?
Norwell may not be right next to the ocean, but microplastics also affect the rivers, ponds, and lakes that run through our town. “We see the effects everyday,” says Brian Taylor, the Environmental Educator for the North and South River Watershed Association (NSRWA) that protects the lakes and ponds in and around Norwell. Not only are the local wildlife and river ecosystems affected, but the people too. “In a region that depends highly on tourism, people don't want to visit places that are heavily littered. This could end up hurting the local economy as well.” And without opportunities for the citizens of the South Shore to experience firsthand the beauty of nature, the norm of ignoring these issues is perpetuated.
Despite a lot of grim statistics, hope for positive change is everywhere. On December 8, 2015, former President Obama signed into law the “Microbead-Free Waters Act” which bans all microbeads being manufactured for cosmetics or being introduced to interstate commerce by July 1, 2019. Many countries including Canada, the UK, New Zealand, India, Italy, Sweden have also implemented legislature that will restrict the sale and production of microbeads.
As citizens of the South Shore, we also have a fundamental role to play in changing the world we live in. “Decreasing our dependence on plastic would ultimately reduce the overall production of plastic waste,” says Taylor. Doing things as simple as bringing your own water bottle for lunch can help, as well as being environmentally conscious consumers. Local level activism is another important step in the right direction. Many communities around Norwell have taken on bans on single use plastic bags with the help of the NSRWA; the town of Norwell is currently pushing for a similar ban to be reviewed at the upcoming town meeting.
Our most powerful tool is education. Don’t allow yourself to be duped by corporations who prioritize making a few more bucks over the potential fate of our planet. It’s going to take all of us acting together; even though these pollutants are called “microplastics”, there is nothing small about the threat they pose to our environment.
Are you with us?
Fonseca, María Angel, M., et al. "The Impact of Microplastics on Food Safety:
The Case of Fishery and Aquaculture Products." Food and Agriculture
Organization of the United Nations, www.fao.org/in-action/globefish/