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Last week, the federal government followed through on a unanimous 2015 House of Commons motion to ban plastics from personal care products and plastic microbeads have been listed as a toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). This significant and important step will ensure that personal care products such as skin care scrubs and toothpastes sold in Canada will be free of plastics by the end of 2017.

Studies have shown many personal care products are releasing enormous quantities of deliberately designed microbeads into the wastewater stream from household use. While some of the tiny beads are retained in sewage sludge, many make it through to effluent into Canadian rivers, lakes and coastal waters.

Microplastics on beach

“I am concerned that we will assume that the problem of microplastic pollution has been solved.” – Dr. Peter Ross

As alarming as that news is, microbeads are only a small part of the microplastics problem. I’ve found microplastic particles in every sample of seawater we’ve collected in coastal B.C. and the northeast Pacific Ocean, but none of these were microbeads. Our team has counted as much as 9,200 particles of microplastic per cubic meter of seawater. We also found that these microplastic particles are being mistaken for food by zooplankton, which are the base of the Pacific food web upon which our salmon, herring, seabirds and marine mammals depend.

If these microplastic particles we’ve found in coastal B.C. are not, in fact, the deliberately manufactured ‘microbeads’ targeted by the Canadian ban, what are they?

Our research found tiny plastic particles called ‘secondary microplastics’ which likely come from the breakdown products of larger commercial items, things like plastic bags, single-use beverage containers, cigarette filters, food packaging, ropes, textiles, automotive parts and toys, and furnishings.

Microplastic research and conservation

Microplastics, seen here under a microscope, are entering the foodweb through zooplankton.

Dr. Esther Gies, research scientist with the Ocean Pollution Research Program, focuses on microplastic pollution and is working to determine the origin of these microplastic particles. Her research is integral to aiding in the development of new ways to reduce the release of microplastics into Canada’s coastal waters.

Banning microbeads is a step worth celebrating, but we must continue to rethink our dependence upon plastic. The world produces over 300 million tonnes of it per year, with production increasing six-fold in the last 40 years. It’s time to start treating plastic as a finite resource to be designed, managed, reused and recycled using the best available practices. With 95 percent of plastic packaging ending up in the waste stream, leading thinkers say creating an effective after-use plastic economy is vital.

For a great read, have a look at: The New Plastics Economy – Rethinking the future of plastics.

AquaBlog post by Peter S. Ross, Director of Vancouver Aquarium/Coastal Ocean Research Institute Ocean Pollution Research Program

To help further prevent plastics from breaking down and entering our waterways, lead or join a Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup near you; anywhere land connects to water, any time of the year. The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, presented by Loblaw Companies Limited and supported by Ricoh Canada and YVR, is a joint conservation initiative of the Vancouver Aquarium and WWF-Canada. Find out more at www.shorelinecleanup.ca

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