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Small solutions for a big crisis: The case of microplastics

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For the past three years, I have tried to decrease my personal use of single-use plastics. Living in America, this hasn’t been easy. Everything from buying groceries to getting a sandwich at a deli to dinner at a restaurant or a meal at the university dining hall has involved needless and almost unavoidable plastic waste.

Many of us try to cut out single-use plastics where we can: refusing a straw here, avoiding a bag there. It’s sometimes hard not to wonder whether these little efforts actually make a difference.

You could ask the same question about some of our nation’s efforts to limit single-use plastics – especially given the huge volumes of plastic winding up in our environment.

Some of these single-use plastics will wind up in the ocean, where they break down into microplastics. Microplastics called “microbeads” have even been deliberately incorporated into consumer products such as cosmetic creams. These particles, mostly under one millimeter in diameter and made up of polymer carbon compounds, are of major environmental concern. Since they are too small to pass though most collection devices – making the financial burden of cleaning a waterway of microplastics incredibly high – microplastics tend to be left in the environment, where they pose a major threat to aquatic species.

Take the tropical fiddler crab, for example – a key species in Brazilian mangroves. A recent study of the species has shown that microplastic pellets gather in the gills of the crab and can hinder respiration, leading to increased mortality of the species and disrupting the ecosystem of which these creatures are a part. Microplastics also pose a grave threat to birds, turtles, fish, and other animals – and in turn, to the broader ecosystem. These plastics can ultimately end up in our food. A 2015 study showed that a quarter of all fish from fish markets sampled in California and Indonesia contained ingested plastic pieces and fibers.

The clear environmental danger posed by microbeads in particular, and the absence of any real benefit from their use, led to the adoption in 2015 of bipartisan legislation banning microbeads in cosmetic products. Although a step in the right direction, this legislation only bans rinse-off cosmetics with plastic microbeads that are intentionally added to the products. A 2017 study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology estimated that the legislation would only prevent between 0.1% and 4.1% of microbeads from entering the environment. Although the intentions of the ban are good, the scope is far too small to make any major change to the overall problem of microplastic pollution, the study argued.

Opponents of plastic bans argue that because the scope of any particular ban is so small, these bans are never going to effectively reduce pollution. These critiques miss the point: small-scale, product-specific and local plastic bans aren’t designed to solve the plastics problem on their own. Instead, they provide the building blocks with which more comprehensive and effective strategies to address plastic pollution can be built.

Similar plastic bans with local, small-scale scope have been measurably effective at making change. The 2015 plastic bag ban in California, for example, was adopted following years of grassroots activism to pass local bag bans in cities and towns throughout the state. The California bag ban, which included provisions encouraging sustainable alternatives, has been proven effective at decreasing pollution. Similarly, the ban on polystyrene (often called “Styrofoam”) in Washington D.C., which took effect in 2016, targeted specific types of foam and encouraged sustainable alternatives, reducing foam waste in major waterways in the region. Bans like D.C.’s have helped provide momentum behind the national movement to ban polystyrene in packaging.

The 2015 federal microbeads ban, like many plastic bans, can be effective at reducing a small and specific amount of plastic waste. That’s important. Those bans are even more powerful, though, as stepping stones leading towards an America that uses far less plastic altogether.

Photo Credit Brian Yurasits via Unsplash