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Facing facts about castoff microplastics in the ocean

When Oprah centered an episode of her talk show on the Texas-sized plastic garbage patch stagnating in the North Pacific gyre, and media outlets report a research cruise to the area by Scripps scientists, the situation must be dire, meaning that the public is ready to be informed. Quite honestly, it has long been known that cast-off plastic materials regularly enter inland watersheds where they wash into storm drains and make their way to the sea. Plastic refuse clogs the ocean and kills millions of sea creatures annually by various means.

These specks of plastic are too tiny to be filtered by wastewater plants and, ultimately, end up in the ocean.

While plastic may not biodegrade (won’t break down into its initial, benign components), it still degrades so every piece of plastic ever made is probably still around somewhere on the planet today. Sunlight disintegrates plastic into smaller and smaller pieces, down to microsized. Most plastic in the ocean is now microplastic. Maybe we can’t see it, but rest assured, we are awash in it. And these plastic particles we know little about. We do know about micro-sized plastics (sand grain-sized) that are synthesized on purpose and that are discharged daily into our ocean.

Soaping up

Microplastic pollution was born during the 1990s, with the invention of liquid hand cleansers containing abrasive microplastics. Initially, the market for these products was small, so worries about negative environmental effects were deemed minor. Today, the average consumer likely soaps up with microplastic-containing products every day, not as a hand cleanser but as a facial exfoliator because most popular face cleansers now contain polyethylene microplastics. Some body cleansers do as well. These specks of plastic are too tiny to be filtered by wastewater plants and, ultimately, end up in the ocean.

Some of the products include Dove’s foaming facial exfoliator, Clarins exfoliating scrub with “micro-fine polyethylene beads,” Neutrogena’s pore-refining scrub and Olay spa body wash with “exfoliating ribbons.” Bead shape is irrelevant, be it spheres, ribbons or should it come to pass, buckeyballs; it’s what they are made of: polyethylene.

Ayur-Medic’s Anti-Bacterial Wash contains polyethylene beads that follow “...the time-tested healing doctrines of Ayurveda, the 5,000-year-old Indian science of life .... a line of skin care products that strikes the perfect balance between natural holistic principles and state-of-the-art medical knowledge.” Seriously?

Not only do the beads sail through wastewater treatment filters but they fool ocean organisms into thinking they are food.

Junk food

Researchers in New Zealand conducted a study on several of these cleansers and determined the average bead size was smaller than 100 microns, requiring a microscope to see. Not only do the beads sail through wastewater treatment filters but they fool ocean organisms into thinking they are food, being a ready-to-eat size for planktonic organisms, those invertebrates near the base of the food chain.

Bottom feeders like mussels, barnacles, lugworms and tiny crustaceans ingest this nonfood where it may remain in the digestive tract or migrate to other body tissues. Then there’s the issue of filling up on plastic instead of real eats. Talk about junk food!

Marine life consuming “clean” microplastics face the above issues. In the long term, uneaten plastic particles wafting through the ocean absorb other toxins dissolved in the soup, like PCBs from pesticides, which concentrate in the beads, making them more toxic over time. Polyethylene looks to be an excellent transporter of dangerous phenanthrene, a byproduct of fossil fuel burning, which ends up in the stomachs of marine life from otters to octopi. Microplastics are a headache for scientists not only because they evade the naked eye but because of complications designing assays that determine plastic levels in an animal’s tissues.

The good news
There is good news. Not all facial exfoliants contain plastic; many use ground seeds, nuts, grains and oil. Good choices for body exfoliants include those with pumice or salt (talk about recyclable!). St. Ives Apricot has a facial scrub with ground apricot kernels; Burt’s Bees has a citrus facial scrub containing finely ground almonds, oats and pecans; Sephora carries Peter Thomas Roth botanical products with micro-jojoba beads; Bath and Body Works products contain jojoba beads; Shiseido makes exfoliating discs with rice bran; and Origins has an exfoliator made with rice starch and a polisher, incorporating ground apricot and mango seeds. This is only a short list.

As long as we choose to purchase polyethylene-based products with microbeads, the companies that manufacture them won’t change practice. Don’t wait until the government finally outlaws microbeads for posing immediate and long-term threats to the health of the ocean and the food we eat. Purchasing products without these pernicious ingredients is a potent incentive for companies to reformulate their products. Ignorance may be bliss but knowledge is power. Now you know.

— Judith Lea Garfield, naturalist and underwater photographer, has authored two natural history books about the underwater park off La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores. Send comments to