We have to admit that we love our plastics – they have made our life a lot more convenient and our homes and offices show it. Beverage and food containers, parts of furnishings, car parts, toys, and … toothpaste?! Yes, even toothpaste and facial scrubs today can be full of ‘microbeads’, deliberately put there as abrasives that will exfoliate dead skin or clean your teeth.

Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup

Shoreline cleanups help with the removal of garbage and “macro” plastics. Research needed on how to clean up microplastics in the ocean.

The trouble is that these plastics are not staying where they are used. Many plastic products and by-products are ending up in our ocean, having inadvertently filtered down there through our tubs, sink drains and sewage pipes.

While we can help clean up a small fraction of the items that wash back ashore through programs like the Vancouver Aquarium’s Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, this only represents items that we can see and/or those that float.

 

But herein lies an insidious and emerging problem of epic proportions: most of the plastic in our oceans is invisible to the human eye and is impossible to clean up. Once it’s out there, it’s game over. Those little tiny bits of plastic are going to float around, subject to currents, tides and weather. The nightmare scenario is thus far a big black box – We don’t yet know if tiny sea creatures might mistake these particles for food. Leatherback turtles suffocate when they mistake plastic bags for jellyfish. Albatross in the mid-Pacific die from stomach obstruction after they mistake floating chunks of plastics for food. And grey whales have even washed up in Puget Sound with rubber boots in their stomach.

Microscopic bits (.062 mm to 5 mm) of plastic found in the seawater of coastal British Columbia.

Microscopic bits (.062 mm to 5 mm) of plastic found in the seawater of coastal British Columbia. Photo credit: Jean-Pierre Desforges

So, is it possible that tiny bits of plastics are being mistaken for food by invertebrates and small fish in coastal British Columbia? Time will tell, with research currently underway to explore this important topic. By that point, however, it may be too late. We recently published a study documenting approximately 4,000 particles of microplastics per cubic meter of Strait of Georgia seawater that was featured in the Vancouver Sun and on Global BC.

These particles are everywhere, but we don’t know much about where they are coming from. Some are likely breakdown products of larger plastic items such as beverage containers, and some appear to come from textiles, ropes and nets. If our oceans are full of plastic particles that end up there largely by accident, then why do we need to use deliberately designed cosmetic scrubs and skin treatments that, without fail, end up sending millions of microbeads down the drain, through our sewage stream and into the ocean? We need to step up and help prevent such items from ending up in the ocean in the first place.

How can you help? Find out more about products that contain microbeads with tools such as this free app or look for products that contain natural exfoliating elements instead of plastic particles. Every “micro-step” helps reduce waste from reaching our oceans.

This post was submitted by Dr. Peter S. Ross, Director of the Ocean Pollution Research Program at the Vancouver Aquarium, a former research scientist with the federal fisheries department.