Microbeads are and have been very problematic. As Ines de Sequera notes ‘although water gets treated at wastewater treatment plants, these facilities generally have not been designed to filter out microplastics.’ (n.d) and until companies started to change their position, partly due to consumer pressure, these were (and still are) making their way into the sea which in turn was/is being ingested by unsuspecting marine life/birds.
What are/were these microbeads?
These were the tiny microbeads you probably didn’t notice in your toothpaste or the ones you bought in that cleanser when you were a teenager. Today many companies are committed to phasing out microbeads which is great news (see here for a information on which companies have promised this: http://www.beatthemicrobead.org/en/industry ) but this is only one aspect of a bigger issue surrounding plastic.
What else counts as microbeads?
Plastic fragments can also be counted as microbead plastic and these are still being used frequently and are produced for us the consumer. These plastic fragments come from plastic objects which deteriorate and disintegrate which can include ‘packaging, articles of clothing, household items such as toothbrushes and razors as well as building materials...amongst many others’ (GESAMP International Workshop, 2010) and these still harm marine life. Unless steps are taken … by 2025 the ocean could contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish,” (Thomas, 2015) .
Recycling plastic is not really an option
According to the British Plastics Federation (hereafter known as BRF) ‘The UK uses over 5 million tonnes of plastic each year of which an estimated 24% is currently being recovered or recycled, with the recognition that in theory it would be best for all plastic to be recycled but due to technological and financial limitations this is not currently possible’ (n.d.). Recycling also uses a lot of energy and water resources.
What about degradable plastics?
There are degradable plastics which include biodegradable plastics out there which are used in some packaging such as for fruit and vegetables. These are better (both the plant-based ones (PLA) and petroleum-based oxo-biodegradable ones) in some senses. For example a plastic made from corn (PLA) will decompose in water and carbon dioxide between 47-90 days – which is four times faster than standard PET-based plastic. However the conditions have to be just right for these results to happen. So, for example, when buried in a landfill, a plastic bag made from corn may remain intact just as long as plastic made from oil or natural gas (Harris, n.d.) which for many makes these better alternatives redundant. Even the BRF say that the solution to our plastic litter problem is not to be found in increasing the use of these materials but in our behaviours – our approach to our shopping and using – not in our design of plastic products. Plastic of any sort is not the answer.
So what can I / we do?
Companies produce plastic, yes because it is cheap and malleable but also because we the consumer buy into it. We have accepted the option offered without thinking – I know I did. I never questioned until now whether my cucumber really needed to be wrapped in plastic…or if my toothbrush needed to be plastic…. and my conclusion is that they don’t. But can I for the life of me find a cucumber that isn’t wrapped in plastic where I live? Currently, no. So it’s time to start questioning this. And for me it begins with some talking locally with independent sellers and with the bigger companies letter writing.
Some folks might say that e-mails are better than letters – they are more environmentally friendly in many ways and don’t include using stamps (which I suspect have plastic in the glue on the back). However, I am an advocate of a well written letter (either typed and personally signed, or hand written in legible writing) after chatting with my husband who used to work in politics. He said letters have greater impact for MPs, so I figured it is probably true for bigger companies too as they are more unusual now than the quick e-mail/petition and suggest more time involvement and personal investment.
However, if all your time allows you signing a petition ( http://bit.ly/1mfQR5l – this is one such petition done by Greenpeace on microbeads) it is better than doing nothing and a personalised e-mail to most companies will be well received I am sure. What I / we need to do is start complaining. Start telling shops/ companies we want alternatives. Living a 100% non plastic lifestyle for me is not possible (but I am having a good go – currently around the 80-90% mark). The problem is that it should be doable and a possible reality for most folks and families. We need to think about making this better through interacting with producers. As consumers, in a consumerist society, in theory we have the “right” to ask for choice. However when it comes to plastic I know I have largely forgotten this assumption….
So I invite you to start asking, politely. I currently am trying to write to companies who have got something right (e.g. a plastic free cereal) and then ask them what other products they are currently producing that are plastic free. Also, I ask them about how they foresee their relationship with plastic changing over the next few years considering the negative impact it is having on our planet. I ask, firmly but politely. I add in an address, my blog site, and an e-mail. I hope to even begin by just getting them to think…but the more who do the same, the more non-plastic choices there will be out there. If you do no changes in your lifestyle regarding plastic this is one simple but potentially powerful way as a consumer we can change the market for better – just like people have done and are doing with microbeads in face washes. Together we can create a more sustainable way of living and buying.
I hope you will join me and many of my lent-giving up plastic friends in writing, e-mailing and campaigning for more nature-friendly choices.
BRF (n.d.) Plastic Recycling. Retrieved February 17, 2016 from: http://www.bpf.co.uk/sustainability/plastics_recycling.aspx#ManufacturingWaste
De Sequera, I., (n.d.) Tiny Plastics Equal Big Problems: Microplastics and Our Oceans. Retrieved February 17, 2016 from: http://www.isfoundation.com/news/tiny-plastics-equal-big-problems-microplastics-and-our-oceans
GESAMP International Workshop (2010) Introduction: plastic waste and mirco-plastics in the oceans. Retrieved February 17, 2016 from: http://www.greenfacts.org/en/marine-litter/l-3/1-plastic-waste-oceans.htm
Harris, W. (n.d.) How long does it take for plastics to biodegrade. Retrieved February 18, 2016 from How Stuff Works.com:http://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/everyday-myths/how-long-does-it-take-for-plastics-to-biodegrade.htm
Pardes A. (n.d.) A Farewell to Microbeads. Image used and retrieved February 18, 2016 from: https://intothegloss.com/2015/12/microbeads-in-beauty-products/
Thomas, S. (2015) Tackling the world’s plastic problem. Retrieved February 17 2016 from: https://www.creativereview.co.uk/cr-blog/2015/november/tackling-the-worlds-plastic-problem/
https://www.creativereview.co.uk/cr-blog/2015/november/tackling-the-worlds-plastic-problem/ – This sight offers a really good insight into the visual problems we are having with plastic from Sophie Thomas visit to Kamilo Point in Hawaii .
http://www.bpf.co.uk/sustainability/plastics_recycling.aspx#ManufacturingWaste – Good site for learning more about the history of plastic and potentially where it is heading.