Plastic Beads & The Plastic Soup Swirling In The Ocean

After writing about polyethyelene beads in conventional body scrubs, I’ve been researching plastics in our oceans.  It really irks me that beauty products contain plastic DESIGNED to be washed to the ocean.  And I’ve found those beads in lots of products, now that I’m looking, including toothpaste (see Simple Steps below). 

Okay, I realize that this may be old news.  Beth over at My Plastic-free Life (formerly Fake Plastic Fish) had a blog about it in early May.  But still.  I’m a green mom on a mission.

If you didn’t know, those polyethylene beads are not caught by sewage treatment plants.  They go right to the ocean.  And while the beads aren’t responsible for the plastic garbage patches swirling in our oceans, they don’t help matters.  And they contribute to them.  My research has compelled me to renew my vow to eliminate plastic as much as possible from my life.

I’m going to guess that you have seen the horrific images of sea life damaged by plastic.  A turtle grown up with a deformed shell from a plastic ring wrapped around him when he was young.  Or a dead bird with a stomach filled with plastic items.  And these images are no doubt disturbing.  But, while we try to do what we can to stop such things from happening, most of us think that we do what we can to recycle our plastic items so we’re not contributing to this problem.  Even if we are wrong.

What has me disturbed is not those images, which do indeed disturb me, but the information that there are huge patches of swirling, floating plastic debris in our oceans.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a combination of the Eastern Garbage Patch and the Western Garbage Patch – is believed to cover an area the twice the size of the continental United States.  Twice the size!  And growing.  The plastic debris is held in place by currents.
And more plastic garbage patches exist in other oceans.Map of garbage patches in ocean

What are these plastic garbage patches made up of?  Plastic.  Plastic from the last 50 years.  Plastics don’t degrade, but in the ocean, they do break into smaller and smaller pieces.  And they form a plastic soup on top of and below the surface of our oceans.
What is in there?  University of Plymouth marine biologist Richard Thompson has identified varieties of acrylic, nylon, polyester, polyethylene, polypropylene and polyvinyl chloride in our oceans.  And in this swirling mass of plastic are objects more than 50 years old.  (Photo courtesy of Algalita Marine Research Foundation).

Plastic does not degrade in any relevant time frame.  Almost all the plastic ever produced is still around.  Consider this quote from Orion Magazine’s article Polymers are Forever by Alan Weisman:

“EXCEPT FOR A SMALL AMOUNT that’s been incinerated,” says Tony Andrady the oracle, “every bit of plastic manufactured in the world for the last fifty years or so still remains. It’s somewhere in the environment.”

Holy sh*t! 

How does the plastic in our oceans get there?  About 80% of the plastic comes from land and the remaining 20% comes from ships and oil platforms.  Keep in mind that only about 3.5% of plastics are recycled.  And, there are a lot of myths about recyling plastic.  The biggest myth?  Plastics that go into curbside recycling bins get recycled.  Not all of them do.  Actually, most of them are NOT recycled.  And if they are recycled, they are made into products such as textiles, parking lot bumpers, and similar products – that cannot be recycled.

So what can we do?  Here are some Smart Mama Simple Steps to help reduce plastic consumption, and also help reduce the plastic garbage patches in our oceans:

  • Give a hoot, don’t pollute.  That saying is true.  Don’t litter, and pick up litter you do see.  Even better – organize a park clean-up, a beach clean-up, or get the local homeowner’s association to install trash cans.  Be a green mom on a mission.
  • Reduce the use.  Don’t buy items in plastic packaging or plastic containers.  Buy in glass or paper.  Use your green purse!
  • Use reusable bags when shopping.  Let’s eliminate plastic bags altogether!  Whenever you shop, use reusable bags – whether you are grocery shopping or clothes shopping, take your own bags.  Richard Thompson reports that even some purportedly biodegradable bags aren’t really – they break down into cellulose and plastic polymers.  After the cellulose broke down, Richard Thompson’s team found that thousands of clean, nearly invisible plastic particles remained.  And, after tying plastic produce bags to moorings in the ocean, his team found that the bags could still carry groceries after a year.
  • Buy in bulk.  This will keep plastic packaging down.
  • Bring your own container.  We just did this at lunch today in my quest to use less plastic.  We brought our own cups to Target (yes, my kids went to the dentist today and we ended up at Target).  The snack counter had no problem with us using our own stainless steel Kleen Kanteens.
  • Skip personal care products with plastic beads.  If a product identifies micro-fine polyethylene beads, polyethylene micro spheres, polyethylene beads, polyethylene or , skip it.  Natural exfoliants such as walnute shells, apricot huls, grape seeds, coarse sugar, sea salt, jojoba seeds or similar products are okay.  Just skip those stupid beads.  Based upon product labels, I’ve found them in: Crest Pro Health Fluoride Toothpaste, Colgate 2 in 1 Toothpaste & Mouthwash – Whitening Icy Blast, Pond’s Fresh Start Daily Exfoliating Cleanser, L’Oreal Pure Zone Pore Unclogging Scrub Cleanser, Aveeno Skin Brightening Scrub, and many more.
  • Clean up your waste.  This summer, whether you are at the beach or on a picnic, pick up your trash.  If the trash bin at the location is full or prone to losing its trash, take your trash with you and put it in a secure location.
  • Sweep sidewalks, don’t hose them.  Pick up the plastic – don’t wash it to the ocean.  This will save water too.
  • Put butts in the trash, not on the ground.  Those cigarette butts are litter!  They do not degrade.  Cigarette butts are not biodegradable as you think.  Almost all cigarette filters are a bundle of 12,000 plastic cellulose fibers.  The acetate (plastic) filters take years to decompose.
  • Dispose of trash in secure container.  Don’t let your trash trash your neighborhood and our oceans.  Make sure your trash can is secure.