Microplastics are defined as all forms of plastics less than 5mm. They can enter the oceans as:
- Primary microplastics such as beads from personal care products, microfibres from clothes and pre-production pellets (nurdles/mermaid tears).
- Secondary microplastics which are derived from larger plastic items which slowly get broken into smaller pieces.
Microplastics have been found in fish and shellfish bound for human consumption, and it has been estimated that an average European seafood consumer ingests 11,000 plastic particles a year.
The Scrub it Out Campaign launched with Fauna & Flora International in 2015 and got major retailers to commit to removing microbeads from their products. It went on to form the basis of the legislative change to remove microbeads from personal care products in 2018.
Why are they harmful?
They can be ingested by everything from zooplankton which make up the base of the food chain in the oceans, all the way up to seabirds, fish, turtles and whales. Research has shown that they can adversely affect growth and reproduction.
Microplastics in the marine environment can carry organic micropollutants such as nonylphenols (an endocrine disruptor), as well as secondary pollutants adsorbed from seawater such as Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and Dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylenes (DDEs). These toxins could potentially be passed into animal tissue and up the food chain to us as sea food consumers.
The full consequences of this for human health are not yet fully understood although a recent study states ‘while knowledge of the environment and human health impacts, and the associated costs, is far from complete there is already a strong case to act.’
What can we do about them?
We need to reduce all plastics entering the oceans in the first place. Whilst we have lobbied successfully for a microbead ban in personal care products, we want to see the ban extended to all microplastics in products that can reach the drain e.g. flushable wet wipes, detergents/cleaners, make-up and sun screens. MCS are also lobbying to get pre-production pellets or nurdles reclassified as a pollutant so they are no longer allowed to be emitted to the environment.
To reduce secondary microplastics, we must stop plastic entering the oceans from all sources. We fully support the concept of a circular economy in which litter, particularly plastic litter, is seen as a resource rather than waste, helping to preserve our planets finite resources.
Actions you can take
- NGO microbead briefing paper
- Join a beach clean
- Join the Plastic Challenge
- Find out more about nurdles
- Learn about Deposit Return Systems
- Read our microbead ban position statement
Did you know?…
Globally, plastic litter has reached every part of the world’s oceans
Plastic has been found in the stomachs of almost all marine species including fish, birds, whales, dolphins, seals and turtles
Over time, one plastic bottle bobbing along in the ocean can break down in to hundreds of tiny plastic pieces