All that glitters is not gold: reducing microplastic waste
Arts and crafts are a fun way be creative, for kids and adults alike. Creating a masterpiece from papier-mâché, crayons and Sellotape is a timeless activity, with a liberal spread of glitter as the icing on the cake.
The fashion and entertainment industries have likewise delighted in glitter’s aesthetic appeal for decades – not to mention Christmas decorations, birthday cards, knick-knacks and makeup as well.
However, with growing public awareness of small-scale plastic pollution in our environment, glitter’s sparkle is beginning to faded. It’s by no means the main culprit in our microplastics problem, but it is emblematic of the massive challenge we face to remove them from our environment.
In 2014, the ocean contained between 15 and 51 trillion microplastic particles, not counting those that have sunk to the seabed or have already washed up on our shorelines. Or have been eaten by marine life; a recent study found that up to one-third of all fish caught in the North Sea haved microplastic in their stomachs.
In August this year, the World Health Organisation reported that microplastic is now detectable in all water including both bottled and tap, cause for alarm despite the apparently low risk to human health.
So what are they? Microplastics typically come in two forms:
- Primary microplastics - small plastic particles used for specific purposes, like microbeads in skincare products, toothpaste and cosmetics. Glitter is a primary microplastic.
- Secondary microplastics – from the breakdown of larger products, like fibres from synthetic clothing that shed when you put them in the washing machine. Certain fabrics can release up to 1,900 individual fibres per wash.
There is a further challenge. As plastics degrade they break down into continually smaller pieces – even microplastics, which become ‘nano-plastics’, and become even harder to isolate and remove from the environment.
So, what can we do?
First things first, we need to stop putting more microplastics in our environment. Large scale solutions include:
Remove plastic microbeads from personal care products. The good news is that several countries including New Zealand have already banned the import, manufacture and sale of rinse-off cosmetic products with microbeads.
- Produce more genuinely biodegradable materials that replace traditional applications for plastic.
- Improve the reuse of plastics through better waste management techniques and recycling. Earlier this year the New Plymouth District Council resurfaced a road in the city with a recycled plastic product equivalent to 83,300 yoghurt pots.
- Improve wastewater treatment plant infrastructure to separate microplastics and prevent them entering rivers and oceans.
But many of these solutions are beyond our personal control. What can you do personally?
- Don’t use makeup, personal care or cleaning products with microbeads. Microbeads might be called several different names, so look out for these:
- Polyethylene (PE)
- Polypropylene (PP)
- Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
- Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)
- Nylon (PA)
- Try not to buy synthetic clothing like polyester, acrylic and nylon.
- Wash any synthetic clothes in colder water, reduce the spin speed and wash them less.
- Use washing detergent with a neutral pH and without bleach.
- Avoid using the tumble dryer – this is better for your energy bill as well!
And for all the glitter-bugs out there?
The good news is that you source plant-based biodegradable alternatives so you can continue to enjoy the sparkle!
Want to share your tips on how to reduce the use of microplastics. Let us know! We’d love to hear from you.