This past summer, filmmakers captured copepods, a type of zooplankton, feeding on small pieces of plastic. Under a microscope at the U.K.’s Plymouth Marine Laboratory, the zooplankton fed on polystyrene beads between seven and 30 micrometers in diameter.
According to researchers, humans discard more than 4.8 million metric tons of plastic waste into the world’s oceans each year. The plastics are carried by currents throughout the world’s oceans, causing problems for marine life. “And plastics underwater are known to accumulate toxic chemicals over time, so ingesting this trash can be extremely hazardous for the health of sea creatures,” according to Popular Science.
But microplastics, defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as particles ranging in size from 1 nm to 5 mm, are of particular concern. “Microplastics have been found in the stomachs of many marine organisms from plankton species to whales,” according to the NOAA.
Around 700 marine organisms encounter debris in their natural environment, 90% of which is plastic, according to researchers from Plymouth Univ.
Used to replace natural exfoliating materials, microbeads are common in cosmetic products, such as facial scrubs. According to the research team, 93% of microbeads used in cosmetics are polyethylene. About 80 facial scrubs in the U.K. market contain plastic material among their ingredients.
In a study published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, the Plymouth Univ. research team found between 4,594 and 94,500 microbeads, with mean diameters between 164 and 327 µm, are released during a single use of facial scrubs. “Due to their size, a considerable portion is likely to pass through preliminary sewage treatment screens (typically coarse, >6 mm, and fine screens 1.5 to 6 mm). Effluent-containing microplastics would then be discharged into inland waters, estuaries and oceans,” the researchers write.
According to Plymouth Univ., researchers estimate U.K. use of these facial products could result in up to 80 metric tons of microplastics entering the sea each year.
“After the study unfolded, I was shocked to see the quantity of microplastics apparent in these everyday cosmetics,” said PhD student Imogen Napper.
Prof. Richard Thompson, a co-author of the paper, said, “Using these products leads to unnecessary contamination of the oceans.”
According to the university, a subsequent analysis employing electron microscopy revealed between 137,000 and 2.8 million microparticles could be contained in 150 mL of a product.
“Some companies have indicated they will voluntarily phase them out from their products,” Napper said. “In the meantime, there is very little the consumer can do to prevent this source of pollution.”
• CONFERENCE AGENDA ANNOUNCED:
The highly-anticipated educational tracks for the 2015 R&D 100 Awards & Technology Conference feature 28 sessions, plus keynote speakers Dean Kamen and Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason. Learn more.