It seems that nothing we do affects only ourselves. Nothing in our lives happens in a vacuum. Not even showering! And I don’t just mean that the people who sit next to you at work will notice if you forgo it, though that may be true. I mean that the soap we use to wash ourselves can have an impact on the world we live in. So much so that Obama signed a bill at the end of 2015 banning those little plastic exfoliating pieces—microbeads—from face wash and other soaps. This ban should go into effect by the middle of this year.
While it may seem a little Big Brother-y that our politicians can decide what we can use in our own showers, they did it for a pretty serious reason—because the beads are ending up in the ocean by the billions, contributing to the ongoing crisis of plastic in the ocean. When microbead-containing soap is rinsed off, the plastic beads go down the drain with the soapy water. Our sewage treatment plants can’t handle tiny plastics as well as they can handle the other things that go into sewage (like poop!), so microbeads can get directly into our rivers and oceans from the treatment plants. Some microbeads do get removed with the “sludge” (yeah, poop again. And other “biomaterial”). Often, this sludge is then spread on land where rain or groundwater can wash the beads—which still won’t biodegrade—into the ocean.
In the realm of plastic in the ocean, we all know the sob stories of turtles or dolphins strangled by nets and bags. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute reports that in the 1970s (when plastic was still relatively new), 40,000 seals died each year from being entangled in plastic, which resulted in a 50% drop in the fur seal population.
But trapping animals in plastic flotsam and jetsam isn’t even the worst byproduct of plastic waste, and certainly, microbeads are not entangling sea turtles or seals. We’re seeing a different, bigger problem now: microplastics. ‘Microplastics’ refers to small pieces of plastic, whether the microbeads in soaps, or the tiny pieces that remain when a bigger piece of plastic has been floating around in the ocean for a while breaking apart.
Scientists have studied just how abundant this plastic in the ocean is. The short answer: very. One group found that in some areas of the Pacific, the mass of plastics floating around was six times higher than the mass of the plankton (small floating plants and animals) living in those areas. Another group found that when they towed nets through the waters of the North Atlantic, more than 60% of the tows contained pieces of plastic. Using more than 20 years of plastic collection data, this same group calculated the weight of the plastic in the middle of the North Atlantic at about 1000 tons, made up mostly of pieces just millimeters in size.
These microplastics—including microbeads—have some unique qualities. Being so small, they are easily mistaken for food by hungry little ocean creatures. In her book Great Waters about her time studying the Atlantic Ocean, Deborah Cramer writes about studying what lantern fish eat. She dissects one under a microscope and finds, “Magnification unexpectedly reveals that our waste, invisible to the naked eye, permeates this sea. Lantern fish dine on copepods [tiny marine invertebrates] and slivers of plastic.”
She’s not the only one to have seen that. Again and again, scientists find plastic in the guts of sea-dwelling animals. In one study, scientists systematically dragged nets through the ocean, and 35% of the fish they found and examined had plastic pieces in their digestive tracts.
So beside the fact that no one really wants to eat plastic instead of food, there is some real harm that comes to fish who have eaten plastic. The plastic itself is not easily digested and may end up causing the fish to starve with its stomach full of plastic instead of digestible food. But something more dangerous than that comes from two qualities unique to plastic. The first is that it is often less dense than seawater, so it floats. This means that it stays accessible to plankton-eating fish longer than, say, sand or sediment or other inedible things that might wash into the ocean. The second is its ability to absorb and concentrate other chemicals. These two qualities means that plastic in the ocean is absorbing and concentrating POPs, or persistent organic pollutants, and continuing to float where it can be eaten by fish, instead of sinking and going as close to “away” as we have here on earth. This means that fish that accidentally eat plastic are actually eating plastic plus all the other pollutants the plastic has picked up along the way.
The pollutants can then wreak immediate havoc on the fish, inducing liver toxicity, neurological disorders, immune problems, and cancer. More concerning still is that these chemicals can be passed up the food chain, bioaccumulating—or increasing in concentration—with each increasing food chain level. This means that animals at the top of the food chain, like whales and even humans, are getting the highest concentration of pollutants and the increased risk of all those diseases.
Besides eating seafood, humans are dependent on a healthy ocean, as are every other plant and animal. That interdependence is a crucial, far-reaching concept worthy of the many books that have been written about it, but I’ll add one bit here, which oceanographer Sylvia Earle wrote in her book, The World is Blue: “Even if you never have the chance to see or touch the ocean, the ocean touches you with every breath you take, every bite you consume. Everyone everywhere is inextricably tied to and utterly dependent on the existence of the sea”. From using fish to fertilize our crops, to breathing air oxygenated by the plants in the ocean that exist in a delicate balance with other ocean life, we humans are tied to the fate of the ocean. So perhaps giving up exfoliating microbeads is a small but good first step toward protecting our shared fates.
So, if you’re sold on the idea that plastic in the ocean might not be great for anyone, there are some things you can do. Until there is a great way to remove microplastic from the ocean without disrupting the lives of the tiny plankton swimming alongside it, preventing more plastic from getting there is our best bet. There are a lot of stages in the life of a piece of plastic where we can intervene. Cleaning up plastic before it reaches our oceans, while it is still on our streets, is a helpful option. (If you live in a city with a body of water nearby, like NYC, have you ever looked into the river after a rainfall? It’s often full of our trash, a lot of which is plastic.) Beach cleanups are also a great idea. Another intervention point is decreasing our demand for plastic in our supply-and-demand economy. We can follow the cities that have banned plastic bags, or decrease our plastic use in other ways. I’ll be the first to admit, though, that is difficult. I tried to go a week without using any disposable plastic items, and I didn’t even last a full 24 hours! But here’s to us, starting in 2017 with a small but very significant step: banning microbeads!