What are microplastics and nanoplastics?
Microplastics are very small solid particles (typically smaller than 5mm) composed of mixtures of specific types of plastics. Microplastics are added to many items, including gardening products, cosmetic products, cleaning products and detergents, as well as paints, and industrial oil and gas products.
The European Chemicals Agencies (ECHA) estimates that microplastics added to products result in close to 36,000 tons of plastic getting released into the environment every year.
Nanoplastics or nanobeads are manufactured solid plastic particles of less than one millimetre in diameter. They became popular to use commercially in the 1990s when manufacturers began adding them to personal care products for their abrasive properties, including face washes, toothpastes and exfoliators.
How are microbeads harmful?
Mostly in the case of microplastics, one of the main potential risks is it being stuck in the guts of living organisms. However, for nanoplastics, they can easily penetrate the tissues and organs of an organism. In a recent study, nanoplastics have been reported to be present in the tissues of terrestrial plants, harming the ecosystem.
Ingested microplastic particles in humans, sealife and other animals can physically damage organs and leach hazardous chemicals that can compromise immune function, affect hormones responsible for growth and reproduction, and are carcinogenic. Both microplastics and these chemicals may accumulate up the food chain, potentially impacting whole ecosystems, including the health of soils in which we grow our food and oceans we consume seafood from. We are also directly affected by microplastics in the water we drink and the air we breathe.
What are the rules about microplastics?
In 2013, some cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies started to commit voluntarily to removing microbeads from their cosmetic and personal care products globally and, more recently, a number of governments have placed limits on the manufacture and sale of products containing microbeads.
In January 2018, a ban on the use of microbeads in rinse off cosmetics and personal care products came into effect in the UK with The Environmental Protection Regulations 2017. The UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made it clear that biodegradable plastics are covered by the UK ban in light of their focus on whether materials labelled compostable or biodegradable may require specific conditions to break down completely. Several other countries including Canada, France, New Zealand, Sweden and Taiwan have also banned the use of microbeads in certain products like “rinse-off” cosmetics.
With several governments restricting or banning the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetic products, cosmetic manufacturers have replaced them with naturally abrasive materials including cocoa beans, ground almonds, ground apricot pits, sea salt, ground pumice and oatmeal. These materials are more biodegradable when released in the environment. Plastic microbeads were originally often preferred over these materials because of their regular shape, lack of sharp edges, and sterile nature.
How can I reduce my microplastic and nanoplastic impact?
Since the researchers discovered the adverse effects of microplastics and nanoplastics on the health and environment, they have become more focused on understanding the impacts of these materials and in providing possible solutions for reducing or eliminating these potential environmental threats.
Reduction in the usage of plastic products such as minimising single-use plastic materials like plastic bottles, cutlery, and straws will see a decrease in use of microplastics.
Clothing made of polyester, nylon and acrylic can also shed microplastics during production and when being washed, so buying alternatives made clothes not made with plastic can also reduce microplastic impact. Plastic catching in-wash laundry bags and laundry balls, that are now widely available to buy, can collect any plastic that is shed when washing plastic-containing garments, to ensure microplastics from clothing do not enter rivers and oceans to ensure they can disposed of or recycled properly.