One of the newest marine and land debris threats are Microplastics. Only identified as an immense danger within the past few years, microplastics are small plastic pieces less than 1mm in diameter, about the size of a grain of sand. There are three classified types/origins of microplastic pollution; Industrial abrasives and cosmetics exfoliants, shedding of synthetic textile fibers from clothes washing, and the breakdown of larger plastic debris.
In the case of cosmetic products, tiny plastic beads (Polyethylene and Polypropylene) are added to face wash, body wash, soaps, makeup and toothpaste (!) to create an exfoliating, ‘scrubbing’ effect. These microbeads are tiny bits of plastic that are designed to be so small that they wash through sewage system filters uncaught, into water sources. The most surprising microplastic sources come from simply washing synthetic clothing, especially fleecy and fluffy items. Made from petroleum based sources (plastic), man-made fabrics shed tiny pieces of fibers that are unable to degrade and just like microbeads, resemble food to some animals.
Regardless of the source, all microplastics enter our waterways and environment unnoticed by humans and too often mistaken as food by fish and wildlife. The specific consequences to animals (and humans) ingesting microplastic are still yet to be officially determined. Based on what we currently know about the ingestion of plastic in general the following side effects are most likely occurring; toxic and chemical absorption (plastics are made from oil) and endocrine disruption (in animals and humans).
So what can you do? Unfortunately in the case of microplastics, there is not a whole lot that we can do once they are released into the environment. You can start by: choosing personal care products that do not contain plastic microbeads; checking out online campaigns asking companies to not use plastic microbeads; and choosing to buy clothing made out of natural fibers (cotton, linen, wool, etc.). As with most environmental and conservation issues, education and conscious consumerism is the key to having a positive impact.