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Have we broken the ocean?: 'Read the ingredient list before you buy your next batch of toiletries'

We need to recognise the damage our plastic addiction is having on our planet, writes Professor Gordon Chambers.

Professor Gordon Chambers DIT

LAST WEEK, THE Dublin Institute of Technology launched a Science Foundation Ireland-funded project to raise awareness of the impact of microplastic pollution on the Irish coastline.

The aim of Irish Microplastic Awareness and Coastal Threats (IMPACT) is to empower young people and local communities to take action against the ever increasing volume of plastic pollution that we are producing as a society.

This project differs from other plastic awareness campaigns because its focus is not on the large plastic debris which we can see littering our beaches, parks, playgrounds and streets. Instead the focus is on the hidden component of plastic pollution – microplastics.

Microplastics

Interestingly, last weekend also marked Earth Day 2018, with the theme ‘End Plastic Pollution’ and the media was awash with articles on plastic pollution. The silent danger of microplastics however may slip through the net and undermine the optimism of the Earth Day theme to end plastic pollution.

Arbitrarily defined as any plastic debris or waste less then 5mm, microplastics represent a latent risk to health and the environment. These plastic particles can range from the average width of your small finger nail down to ten thousand times smaller than the diameter of a single strand of hair.

At this size and scale, microplastics can be ingested by marine species of all shapes and sizes. In the smallest of marine creatures for example plankton, the microplastics can accumulate in the digestive system resulting in intestinal blockages, starvation and malnutrition – similar to the accumulation of lager plastic debris in higher marine organism like whales.

Unlike the larger marine plastic these tiny fragments can be absorbed from the intestine and subsequently deposited in the tissue, muscle and organs of species that have ingested them. This transport of microplastics particles from the intestine occurs regardless of whether it was a whale or a snail that ingested them?

An unknown quantity

The longer-term impacts of microplastics on both our health and the environment is still an unknown quantity and something which needs significant research.

We know that microplastics can cause both individual health risks to organism with changes in immune response, liver function and respiratory rates begin regularly reported in science literature. However, the long-term population changes due to the presence of microplastic in our environment are still the subject of much debate.

It was this backdrop in which the question “have we broken the ocean?” was asked from one of the younger participants at our workshop. The question raises an important issue, can we recover? Have we finally pushed the ocean and environment too far?

The answer to the question will remain open for many years to come and may ultimately be something the next generation will need to solve.

Each and every one of us can help

One thing that is for sure is that we cannot solve the problem until the flow of plastic into the environment ends – and each and every one of us can help make that happen. We have heard for years the reduce, reuse and recycle slogan. However we now need to add a fourth ‘R’ – recognise: Recognise, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.

We need to recognise the damage our plastic addiction is having on our planet. We need to recognise that large plastic debris can breakdown in the environment due to weathering and sunlight into smaller and smaller pieces which could potential have significant population effects.

We need to recognise the unnecessary use of single use plastic and microplastics which are needlessly added to personal care products. Finally, we need to recognise that the time has come to take action.

It is true that reducing the flow of large plastic waste into the environment will stop secondary microplastics forming from the breaking apart of the larger waste. However, those concerned about microplastics may also want to check their home for primary or intentionally produced microplastics.

Reviewing ingredients

To do that, you need to look specifically at your toiletries and detergents and review the ingredient list watching for some of the more common microplastic additives from the list below:

  • Polyethylene (PE)
  • Polyethylene/acrylate copolymer
  • Polypropylene (PP)
  • Polystyrene (PS)
  • Nylon
  • Polymethyl Methacrylate (PMMA)
  • Polyacrylate
  • Polyethylene-glycol  (PEG)
  • Polylactic acid (PLA)
  • Polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon)
  • Polyisobutylene; (PIB)
  • Polyvinylpolypyrrolido (PVP)

When you’re doing your shopping, don’t just think of the plastic packaging, but think of these microplastics and take some time to read the ingredient list before you buy your next batch of toiletries and detergents.

For more advice, contact IMPACT: The Microplastics Awareness Project or book an interactive science workshop in your school or organisation.

The time is now to implement your own action plan to combat personal plastic waste. This way we will no longer have to answer questions like “have we broken the ocean?”

Professor Gordon Chambers has been an active researcher in the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) for almost two decades. IMPACT means Irish Microplastic Awareness and Coastal Threats. The project aims to raise awareness of the impact of microplastics on the Irish coastline by hosting interactive science workshops for children and young people in schools and community organisations.

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Professor Gordon Chambers  / DIT

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