Microplastics and microbeads are tiny pieces of plastic that end up in the world’s seas and oceans, causing environmental damage and as yet unknown effects on sea creatures and the wider ecosystems which support marine life. While microplastics have been an issue for some time, the topic has received an increasing amount of attention in recent years as concern over global plastic pollution – and its impact on human health – has risen. Governments across the world are now beginning to take action to try and deal with microplastic pollution. However, there is a count-narrative that claims that the impact of microplastics have been overstated and is used to deflect attention for other issues.
Every year around eight million tons of plastic is dumped into the world’s seas and oceans (1) and it will take a huge amount of effort and cooperation to even begin to reduce the amount of plastic pollution which is damaging the world’s marine environment. Indeed, scientists have predicted that there could be more plastic than fish in the world’s seas by the year 2050 (2).
Forms of Plastic Pollution
The different types of plastic pollution in the world’s seas and oceans are generally categorised into two main types:
Microplastics: These are tiny particles of plastic ranging from 1mm across to as small as 0.0001mm in diameter. Microplastics are formed when larger pieces of waste plastic end up in the ocean. This plastic begins to break down into smaller and smaller pieces and over time and release microplastics. Due to the huge amount of plastic ending up in the world’s seas and oceans every year there are major concerns over the levels microplastics will reach in coming decades.
One of the most prominent examples of mass plastic pollution is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This is actually two distinct patches of mostly plastic pollution trapped in the Pacific Ocean by currents and gyres. In October 2016 an aerial survey found that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was in fact several times larger than previous estimates had stated (3).
Microbeads: These are tiny pieces of plastic which have been used as a component in face washes, shower gels, toothpaste and a range of other cosmetic products. They are – as the name implies – tiny beads which are included as they make the products exfoliate and clean more effectively. Microbeads are so small that when they are washed down sinks they bypass filters in sewage plants and eventually end up in the sea. Research by the University of Plymouth found that a single tube of facial scrub could contain over 2.8 million individual microbeads, meaning that up to 94,500 could be released every time the product is used (4). Microbeads are also found in washing powders, detergents and in some household cleaning products.
Other Forms of Microplastic Pollution: There is a huge range of other forms of microplastic pollution. Clothing such as fleeces and jackets can release thousands of polyester fibres when they are washed which then also end up making their way into the world’s seas and oceans (5), with the Guardian claiming that a single clothes wash can release up to 700,000 individual fibres into the environment (6). Cosmetic wipes are also a significant problem as they also break down into microplastics. The Sunday Times reports that 920 million cosmetic wipes are used in the UK alone every year, with 296,000 tons of them used annually in the European Union, creating another source of microplastics (7). Nurdles are plastic pellets used as the raw material in the manufacture of plastic. Due to the huge demand for plastic and plastic products, billions of nurdles are shipped around the world every year, with many ending up in the sea during the manufacturing process or while they are being transported.
In 2017 a survey of 279 British beaches found that 73% of beaches they looked at had plastic nurdles on them, with a 100 metre stretch of a beach in Cornwall having 127,500 nurdles present. Up to 53 billion nurdles are estimated to escape into the UK environment every year (8). Nurdles are damaging to the environment as they break down into microplastics over time. They are also mistaken as food by fish and other sea creatures – something which is made even more dangerous as nurdles can absorb background chemicals that are present in the oceans. The long term effects of nurdles on the marine environment are unknown. Car tyres are another form of plastic pollution, with the tiny pieces of rubber which break away every time a car is driven eventually making their way into the sea and adding to the microplastic problem.
How Do Microplastics Get Into The Sea?
Microplastics get into the sea when any kind of waste plastic (such as carrier bags, plastic packaging or plastic which has been produced as a by-product of industry) gets disposed of in the ocean. This can happen when unscrupulous companies or individuals deliberately throw plastic waste into the ocean to dispose of it, or when rubbish and waste is not secured or stored properly and inadvertently ends up in the ocean. Once this plastic is in the sea it will very slowly begin to break down. As this happens hundreds of thousands – possibly millions – of pieces of microplastic will be released. Microbeads end up in the sea when they are washed down the sink, shower or bath.
While sewage plants can filter out a lot of harmful substances from the waste they process microbeads (and polyester fibres) that are so small they can bypass filtration and treatment systems and end up in the sea. Plastic use has risen twenty-fold in the last fifty years (9), meaning this is becoming an increasingly serious problem.
Damage To The Marine Environment
Microplastics, microbeads and polyester fibres are undoubtedly harmful to the marine environment, although much of the damage they do has yet to be understood, and it may not be until many years in the future that the real impact becomes apparent. It has been proven that fish can seek out plastic pollution to eat, as the decomposing chemicals in plastic give out a similar smell to natural food sources (10). In immature fish, microbead consumption inhibits growth as the extra energy that the fish expend trying to digest the plastic also makes them slower and more docile, and therefore easier for predators to catch. Marine organisms which filter feed can also be badly affected by microplastics and microbeads, with species such as sea cucumbers having their digestive tracts blocked with microplastics and microbeads. Lugworm are a filter-feeding species that may be badly affected by high levels of microplastics being found in their habitat, although exactly how lugworm will be affected is currently unknown. Some species of crabs and lobsters have been found with microplastics stuck in their gills (11).
Microplastics In The Food Chain: Impact On Humans?
There is now serious concern that there is so much plastic pollution in the seas and oceans that it is inevitable that humans will end up ingesting plastic through the fish and seafood we eat. While the larger fish humans eat may not directly eat microplastics they may accumulate microplastics in their bodies when they are immature fry, or through feeding on smaller fish that are full of microplastics. A study in the science journal Nature found that a quarter of fish and shellfish bought at markets in Indonesia and California contained plastic (12), while researchers at the University of Ghent in Belgium have calculated that people eating shellfish on a regular basis will consume 6,400 pieces of microplastic a year. A small proportion of these will accumulate in the human body and there has yet to be any substantive research carried out to understand the long-term effects this will have on human health (13).
Chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics may also cause major environmental issues, although their exact impact may take time, possibly decades, to emerge. Research carried out by the University of Arizona found that chemicals used in the manufacture of plastic may “may migrate into fish flesh and thus edible parts of seafood” and in accumulated concentrations, they may be harmful to humans (14). Some harmful chemicals are found in microplastics. Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) which are resistant to environmental degradation are found in pesticides, flame retardants and electrical insulation. While many of these have been banned since the 1970s they remain present in seawater for decades and may be absorbed into plastics. Research by the University of Exeter found that plastic found off the coast of Japan had chemical levels over one million times higher than that found in the surrounding areas (15).
The issue of both microplastic and chemical ingestion in fish very much affects the UK, with the Daily Mail quoting a report which found that 30% of fish in the English Channel had some form of plastic in their bodies, and over 80% of scampi sold in the UK also contained plastic (15). Microplastic pollution is a truly global problem, with microplastics even being found frozen into arctic ice (16) and in deep-sea ecosystems at depths of 6000ft (1820 metres) (17).
What Are The Solutions?
With so much plastic already in the world’s seas and oceans there are major concerns that the damage may already be done, and measures taken now will be effective only in limiting the extent of the harm caused to the marine environment. There is no known way that microplastics can be removed from the sea while leaving plankton and other microscopic sea creatures (which are essential to marine life) unharmed.
There have been many successful campaigns and legislation to achieve this such as the UK government charging 5p for plastic bags which has seen the use of disposable carrier bag use reduced by 85% (18), with the Marine Conservation Society stating that this has been “fantastic news for the marine environment” (19). The changing public opinion over plastic pollution can also be seen in the actions of companies that are now getting on board with campaigns aimed at reducing plastic usage. Bacardi, one of the world’s largest and most successful drinks companies, has also started its own campaign to convince people to forego the use of a plastic straw when consuming its beverages. Disposable plastic straws are the fifth most common item of ocean waste, and the United States alone disposes of enough plastic straws to fill 125 school buses to the brim with plastic straws every single day (20). Following the success of the carrier bag charge there have been plans for a similar plastic bottle tax of 20p, which can be reclaimed when the bottle is recycled (21), and calls for supermarkets to bring in plastic-free aisles in supermarkets (22).
Further measures to reduce the amount of plastic waste ending up in the sea include increasing recycling, educating people to get rid of waste properly, punishing people who litter and fly-tip and clamping down on illegal waste disposal by companies and industry. The plastics industry can also improve the safety and security of the supply chain to ensure that environmentally damaging products such as plastic nurdles do not get into the world’s seas and oceans.
The use of microbeads in cosmetic products is the aspect of plastic pollution that has gained the most media attention, with the cosmetics coming under immense pressure to stop using microbeads in its products. This led to Cosmetics Europe, the organisation which represents thousands of cosmetics manufacturers across the continent – pledging to voluntarily phase out microbeads in their wash-off products by 2020 (23).
This was not seen as sufficient by the UK government, with countries such as Ireland and the USA bringing in bans much sooner. In Autumn 2016 the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee recommended that a ban on cosmetic products containing microbeads should be introduced in 2017 with the then Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom saying:
“Most people would be dismayed to know the face scrub or toothpaste they use was causing irreversible damage to the environment, with billions of indigestible plastic pieces poisoning sea creatures … adding plastic to products like face washes and body scrubs is wholly unnecessary when harmless alternatives can be used” (24).
Indeed, the tide of public opinion has turned against microbeads to such an extent that celebrities have found themselves criticised in the media for promoting products that contain microbeads. In 2016 the actress Jennifer Aniston was condemned for appearing in adverts for a facial scrub by a brand called Aveeno which is owned by Johnson and Johnson. The advert stated that the product contained “gentle exfoliators” but did not make it clear that these were plastic microbeads (25). Johnson and Johnson then pledged to remove microbeads from all of their products by the end of 2017. In 2018 the UK banned microbeads in cosmetic products such as toothpaste and face washes (26), although concerns remain that products such as mascara, eye shadow, blusher and lipstick which can include polymer type plastic to add bulk or texture to the product or to act as a binding agent could escape the ban (27).
Scientists at Utrecht University in the Netherlands have identified several species of fungi that are capable of surviving on a diet consisting entirely of plastic, while researchers in China, Japan and the USA have been working to identify species of worms, larvae and bacteria which can also digest plastic pollution (28). While these organisms will naturally consume only a small amount of plastic it may be possible to genetically engineer them to consume plastics at a faster rate. There is the hope that one day worms, fungi, bacteria or larvae can be harnessed to consume plastic out of the world’s seas and oceans and go some way towards reducing waste plastic in the environment.
Indeed, plastic waste in the world’s seas and oceans may itself be recyclable. The cosmetics brand Head and Shoulders – itself owned by the US multinational company Proctor and Gamble – has made a range of shampoo bottles which are partly made from plastic recovered from a beach in France by volunteers. While only 170,000 of the special-edition bottles will be made (a tiny proportion of the company’s overall sales) it does show what can be done with plastic pollution and also demonstrates that cosmetic companies are taking the problem of ocean pollution seriously (29). Companies such as Adidas and G Star RAW have also made products that utilise recovered waste plastic. Researchers at Warwick University in the UK have developed a process called pyrolysis which transforms waste plastics into an oil known as Plaxx (30). This oil can then be used as a fuel in heavy machinery or turned back into useful forms of plastic (31).
One high-profile project to remove ocean plastics has not been as successful. The Ocean Cleanup Project was founded by Dutch citizen Boyan Slat when he was still in his teens (32). Having won multiple awards and raised over $2 million in start-up funding the project initially envisioned clearing up ninety per cent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by 2040. There were questions over the feasibility of his plans from the outset (33), and the first attempt to use autonomous floating booms to remove plastic from the Pacific ended in failure. By 2019 the Ocean Cleanup project was being called “a dream that seduced many” (34) and plastic pollution experts were claiming that the project could not work and was detracting attention from more effective ways of helping the oceans, such as stopping plastic from ending up in the sea in the first place (35).
Criticisms of Concentrating on Consumer Plastic Pollution
The failure of the much-hyped Ocean Cleanup Project has led to further criticisms of the attention given to plastic pollution and the huge amount of time, effort and money which is put into combating this form of marine pollution. The 2021 Netflix documentary Seaspiracy brought this to public attention. The documentary’s creator and presenter Ali Tabriuzi argues that plastic pollution caused by consumers is relatively minor, for example only 00.3 per cent of ocean plastic pollution is made up of drinking straws, while in some areas (such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) almost half of the plastic pollution comes from lost or abandoned commercial fishing gear. In a powerful and much-quoted line from Seaspiracy, he compares attempting to save the oceans by stopping using straws as the equivalent of trying to save the rainforests by stopping using toothpicks. Tabrizi, therefore, argues that there is a clear and deliberate attempt to switch the attention of the public to plastic pollution caused by consumers in order to allow commercial fishing – which is responsible for the overwhelming majority of plastic pollution – to continue unabated.
While it became one of Netflix’s most view programmes soon after its release, Seaspiracy has been criticised in a number of ways, including its ‘gotcha’ style of interviewing, taking out of context quotes from contributors to the documentary, using outdated and misleading statistics and failing to give those criticised in the programme a right of reply (36). Despite these criticisms, Seaspiracy contains some persuasive footage that adds to its argument, such as a member of the Plastics Pollution Coalition saying “I don’t have time” and “I don’t have an opinion about that” when asked if it would make more sense to have less commercial fishing in order to reduce plastic pollution, rather than concentrate on consumer use of plastics. The Plastic Pollution Coalition responded to Seaspiracy with this statement, and these issues are discussed in much greater depth in our full review of Seaspiracy which can be viewed here.
Encouraging progress has been made in pressuring brands to change their products to remove microplastics and the success of such campaigns can be seen in the way governments have moved to ban microbeads from products on a much shorter timescale than the manufacturers would have liked. However, even a total ban would only go a relatively small way to solving the problem as many other forms of plastic pollution make their way into the world’s seas and oceans, eventually being broken down into microplastics. Furthermore, as stated in Seaspiracy, the main causes of plastic pollution, such as commercial fishing gear, have received relatively little attention. While reducing plastic pollution from consumer goods has clearly helped, it needs to be matched by action from governments around the world to stop all forms of plastic from reaching the seas.
Oceanographer and sailor Charles J. Moore was instrumental in bringing the issues of plastic pollution in the oceans to a wider audience. His famous book Plastic Ocean can be purchased on Amazon by clicking here.
In 2016 a feature-length documentary film called A Plastic Ocean was released. Filmed over four years in twenty different locations this film studies the ways in which plastics have ended up in the sea, and what the impact of having a plastic-filled ocean will be. Watch the trailer by clicking here. The film can be streamed on iTunes Movies or Amazon Video.
Please note: This article was written and uploaded in February 2017 and updated in 2018 and again in 2021. Any developments which have taken place after this date will not be reflected in the article.
1.National Geographic – Eight Million Tons of Plastic Dumped in Ocean Every Year
2. The Washington Post – By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans, study says
3. The Guardian – ‘Great Pacific garbage patch’ far bigger than imagined, aerial survey shows
4. The Daily Mail – Hidden in your daily facial scrub: Up to 94,500 tiny microbeads which are deadly to marine life
5. The Daily Mail – Is Your Fleece Killing Marine Life?, 3/7/16.
6. The Guardian – Single clothes wash may release 700,000 microplastic fibres, study finds
7. The Sunday Times, The War on Face Wipes, 30/10/2016
8. BBC News – Plastic ‘nurdles’ found littering UK beaches
9. UK Business Insider – By 2050, the oceans could have more plastic than fish
10. The Guardian, Fish Mistaking Plastic Debris in Ocean for Food, Study Finds, 16/8/17.
11. Environmental Science & Technology Journal – Effect of microplastic on the gills of the Shore Crab Carcinus maenas
12. Nature – Anthropogenic debris in seafood: Plastic debris and fibers from textiles in fish and bivalves sold for human consumption
13. Environmental Pollution Journal – Microplastics in bivalves cultured for human consumption
14. The Guardian – Fish for dinner? Your seafood might come with a side of plastic
15. The Daily Mail – A poison worse than any spill: How a third of fish caught in the English Channel have microplastics in their guts
16. Nature – Microplastics in Arctic polar waters: the first reported values of particles in surface and sub-surface samples
17. The Mirror, Scientists ‘Astonished’ to Find Micro-Plastics Polluting Oceans at a Depth of 6,000ft, 4/10/16.
18. The Guardian – England’s plastic bag usage drops 85% since 5p charge introduced
19. Sky.com – Plastic bag tax ‘fantastic news for marine wildlife’
20. Bacardi Limited Website – Bacardi Initiates a ‘No-Straw’ Movement to Reduce Waste
21. The Telegraph – Plastic bottle ‘tax’ could be introduced to tackle waste
22. Sky.com – Supermarkets urged to have plastic-free aisles
23. Daily Mail – No more plastic in shower gels and face scrubs: Cosmetics firms pledge to remove harmful microbeads to protect the oceans
24. BBC News – Plastic microbeads to be banned by 2017, UK government pledges
25. Daily Mail – Jennifer Aniston ‘should blush with shame’ over facial scrub adverts
26. Gov.uk – World leading microbead ban comes into force
27. Daily Mail – Now ban the microbeads in make-up: Controls on ‘plastic poison’ in toothpaste and body scrubs MUST be extended to cover cosmetics too
28. The Guardian, Could A New Plastic-eating Bacteria Help Combat this Pollution Scourge? 10/3/2016.
29. The Guardian, Shampoo Bottle Made From Ocean Plastics Hailed as ‘Technological Breakthrough’ 25/1/2017.
30. The Telegraph – Our seas have become a plastic graveyard – but can technology turn the tide?
31. Plasticstoday.com – Plaxx, a clean substitute for fossil-based heavy fuel oil?
32. New Scientist – Could a vast rubber boom clean up tonnes of ocean plastic?
33. The Guardian, Too Good to be True? The Ocean Cleanup Project Faces Feasibility Questions, 26/3/2016.
34. Dezeen.com – The Ocean Cleanup labelled “a dream that seduced many people”
35. The Verge – Why so many of us wanted to believe in an ocean cleanup system that just broke
36. Forbes.com – Seaspiracy: a call to action or a vehicle of misinformation?