Itsy bitsy teeny weeny

I’ve been pleased to see over the past week that there has been a lot of publicity in the UK about plastic pollution in the seas. It seems that if David Attenborough highlights an issue, the public will finally sit up and take notice. Well, thank goodness someone has this power.

It’s relatively easy to show the horrible effects of things like plastic bags and balloons on sea creatures, but tiny fragments of plastic are a problem too and it’s these that I have been thinking about recently. Plastic fibres and microbeads enter the food chain at the smallest level and are particularly insidious – many plankton are unable to distinguish between plastic and real food, so ingest the former indiscriminately, potentially causing their guts to be blocked (you can read more about this and follow the linked references in this article).

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Pure woolly warmth

And so, I have been considering ways that I can reduce the tiny bits of plastic that I am responsible for in the environment. I’m not sure that I have ever used a product containing microbeads, and I certainly don’t use any now. I think that my biggest source of micro-plastics, therefore, is from fibres originating from fabrics. Years ago we were all delighted to wear garments made of synthetic fleece made from recycled plastics, but now we discover that every time we wash these clothes, we are putting more fibres into the water. So, no more fleece jumpers for me – my two new ones are both pure wool. The same is true for any manmade fibres and so I’m trying (mostly)  to phase them out. A while back I was happy to use upcycled acrylic yarn to make bath puffs, but now I think it’s best avoided. My new dishcloths are cotton and when we get round to replacing carpets and curtains they too will be made of natural fibres.

 

Now I think about it, I don’t know for sure the composition of any of the carpets in our house because they are the ones that were here when we moved in. I do know, however, that none of my curtains contain manmade fibres, so I can feel happy about those. And this brings me round to being concerned about how we dispose of items made of manmade fibres. If I decide that I would like to have a new wool carpet, what do I do with the old one of unknown composition? Similarly – is it better keep wearing my fleeces until they wear out and then replace them with something kinder to the environment or dispose of them right away so that I am not continuing to add to microplastic pollution? And if the latter, what do I do with them?

I don’t have any answers to these quandaries and I’m wondering what approach anyone else takes. Suggestions most welcome.

Where the snail leads…

… the BBC follows!

For the second time in a week the BBC has featured something that I wrote about some time ago.

Stuffed and ready to go

Stuffed and ready to go

First it was the knitted knockers on BBC Breakfast and now it’s microbeads on Springwatch. Last night whilst I was busily stuffing knockers and crocheting roses to accompany them, one of the BBC’s popular wildlife shows featured a piece on those tiny balls of plastic that are increasingly found in cosmetics and personal hygiene products. I didn’t see the piece myself when first broadcast, but was alerted to it when references started appearing on my Twitter feed to microplastics and #banthebead. I sincerely hope that the effect on microbeads is as significant as it has been on knockers (requests are still flooding onto our orders board).

If you are in the UK, you can watch the programme featuring microbeads here; the relevant section starts around 47 minutes 35 seconds.

Whilst I’m not a big viewer of television, I am heartened to see the positive effect of this sort of publicity. Being featured on a popular TV show can be a real boon to a charity or campaign, although the response can be a little overwhelming. So, the question is… what shall I write about next in the hope that the BBC feature it as a subject?

 

 

More stealth plastic

After Mr Snail’s recent discovery of plastic in the ‘plastic-free’ Easter egg he was given, I have been thinking about ‘hidden’ plastics… you know the sort of thing – plastic coatings on the inside of cans and jar lids, plastics in your clothes and plastics in your toiletries. Yes, you read that right “in your toiletries” – I don’t mean around your toiletries in the form of plastic containers, I mean toothpaste and body washes that contain plastics. Specifically tiny plastic beads, otherwise known as microbeads.

Left: Nilgiri; Right: Yunnan

Plastic-free tea

Now, as you know, I was rather upset to discover a while ago that there was plastic IN my teabags and, as a result, I have converted to using loose tea and buying it unpackaged, using my own containers. So, the last thing I wanted to hear was that there might be secret plastics in my toiletries too. When I started investigating further, I discovered that all sorts of plastics – polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethlyl methacrylate (PMMA) and  nylon – are put into all sorts of products – face soaps, body washes, toothpastes, lip gloss and nail polish. There are even plastic microbeads in some anti-aging makeup… you can fill the creases on your face with gunge containing plastic – nice!

Because these fragments of plastic are so small, they are easy for us to ignore and we might consider that this means they are not a problem, but in fact there are real issues. Microbeads don’t get filtered out of waste water in treatment plants, so they get right into the environment where they absorb toxins and are then consumed by aquatic life… some of which gets eaten by humans (poisoned plastic sashimi anyone?):

Plastic microbeads absorb persistent organic pollutants (long-lasting toxic chemicals like pesticides, flame retardants, motor oil and more) and other industrial chemicals that move up the food chain when the toxic-coated beads are consumed by fish and other marine organisms. A single microbead can be up to a million times more toxic than the water around it. (Plastic Microbeads 101)

And it’s all unnecessary! The plastic beads are used because they are slightly abrasive, but there are natural products that are suitable too – like good, old-fashioned pumice, or fully biodegradable apricot shells. Sadly, microbeads are cheap and not too abrasive, so you can be use products with them in every day (thus, potentially increasing consumption).

No microbeads in my locally made soap, or my homemade cotton wash cloth

No microbeads in my locally made soap, or my homemade cotton wash cloth

When I investigated my toiletries, however, I was able to breathe easy… my organic toothpaste was free of microbeads, as was my soap (it’s made by a local artisan, so I know exactly what’s in it, including a complete absence of palm oil). I don’t wear any makeup and I don’t have specific face wash (exfoliating or otherwise), so no worries there either. I’m certainly glad that I haven’t found another part of my life that I need to change because of stealth plastic!

If you want to make your concerns about these hidden plastics known, I encourage you to sign the petition on The Story of Stuff web site… just click here.

-oOo-

There is sound scientific research demonstrating the problems, including:

D. Barnes, F. Galgani, R. Thompson, M. Barlaz, Accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 364, 1985-1998 (2009). In 2012, scientists found micro-beads numbering more than 450,000 per square kilometer in parts of the Great Lakes (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025326X13006097)

Yukie Mato, Tomohiko Isobe, Hideshige Takada, Haruyuki Kanehiro, Chiyoko Ohtake, and Tsuguchika Kaminuma, Plastic Resin Pellets as a Transport Medium for Toxic Chemicals in the Marine Environment, Environ. Sci. Technol., 2001, 35 (2), pp 318–324 (http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es0010498?journalCode=esthag)

Chelsea M. Rochman, Eunha Hoh, Tomofumi Kurobe & Swee J. Teh, Ingested plastic transfers hazardous chemicals to fish and induces hepatic stress, Scientific Reports 3, Article number: 3263 (http://www.nature.com/srep/2013/131121/srep03263/full/srep03263.html)

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