The complexity of microplastic pollution

Matt Turley picOur very own Matt Turley, PhD student at the Aquatic Research Centre has been on the news!

Matt was interviewed on Channel 5 news about the dangers of microplastics, following a report issued by The Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons. The report calls for the government to ban the use of microplastics in cosmetic products, due to the available evidence on the impacts to the marine environment.

Scientists from the Aquatic Research Centre at the University of Brighton are backing calls for a ban on ‘microbeads’ – particles of plastic used in a number of cosmetics and cleaning products, which end up in lakes, rivers and the ocean.

Matt, who is researching the problem, said: “Microplastics do not biodegrade, and so they accumulate in the marine environment and are extremely costly and difficult, if not impossible, to clean up.  A ban on the use of microplastics in personal care products in the UK is a step in the right direction to reducing further inputs of plastic to the marine environment and to begin to address the wider problems of marine plastic pollution.

“Globally, approximately 300 million tonnes of plastic are manufactured annually. In a single year, the amount of plastic pollution entering the oceans has been estimated at between 4.8 million tonnes and 12.7 million tonnes, and around 80 per cent of this is thought to be introduced through land-based activities.

“Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic less than 5mm. Despite their small size, these microplastics have been identified as a significant form of pollution with the potential to impact marine animals and the wider ecosystem. Their sources are numerous and include particles that arise following the physical and chemical breakdown of larger pieces of plastic debris, industrial spillages and products, as well as household items such as synthetic clothing or personal care products.

“Personal care products, which include items such as shampoos, toothpastes and body washes, can contain as many as three million plastic particles in 150ml. A single shower when using a product containing microplastics can result in around 100,000 particles being washed down the drain to our wastewater treatment plants, where they either pass through filtering systems and into rivers and the ocean, or settle out in sewage sludge. This sewage sludge is an important source of nutrients for the agricultural sector, and so approximately 40 per cent of it (within the EU) is used for spreading on agricultural land, representing a further pathway to the natural environment.

“The Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons released a report this week calling for the government to ban the use of microplastics in cosmetic products, due to the available evidence on the impacts to the marine environment. Currently, many companies are signed up to a voluntary phase out of microplastics by 2020, and some larger companies have already removed them from their products. However, other companies have not signed up to the agreement, and many experts say the issue requires a more rapid response.

“The extent of the impacts that these microplastics can have is still being investigated but there is no doubt that they are harmful to the marine environment. So far, research suggests that marine animals can eat these microplastics – mistaking them for their usual food items – and that they can accumulate in their gut, and in some cases can even pass through the wall of their gut and into body tissue. Laboratory research on shellfish and worms exposed to microbeads has shown reduced feeding and growth rates, as well as lower reproduction, all of which could have negative impacts on marine ecosystems. Other areas of concern are the chemicals that can attach to microplastics and the potential for them to have toxic effects when ingested by marine animals.

“Microplastics have been found in some seafood that is sold for human consumption, but it is thought that human dietary exposure is relatively low, and at current levels is unlikely to represent a threat to human health, although more research is needed in this area.

“Tackling the complex problems of microplastic pollution will require numerous policy interventions.”

• Matt was interviewed on Channel 5 news on the issue:

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