Microplastics are small plastic particles that will persist in the environment indefinitely. Typically they are between 1 mm (the size of a ball point pen tip) and 5 mm (+/- the size of an eraser on a pencil).
Some microplastics are intentionally manufactured to be microscopic in size, and are referred to as “microbeads.” They are used in a variety of ways including as cleansing or exfoliating agents in personal care products (cosmetics, soaps, toothpaste), in medicine, and by industry. Plastic microbeads (including the majority of biodegradable microbeads) do not dissolve in cold water. Most wastewater treatment plants do not remove them (1). Once rinsed down the drain, microplastics end up in rivers, lakes and the ocean.
Moving beyond microbeads, plastic fragments called “microplastics” are derived from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic debris, both at sea and on land.
They come from many sources, including:
- Fragments - from ground up litter, plastic molding, artificial turf
- Line and fiber - from rope, machine washing of synthetic clothing, fish nets, cigarette butts
- Foam - from food containers, packaging, building materials
- Film - from cling wrap and other food and materials packaging
- Production pellets - small pellets used as stock material in manufacturing plastic products
Scientists and public officials are just starting to realize:
- Plastic is being found everwhere - in rivers, lakes, the ocean, fish, the air, and even our bodies.
- Exposed to sun, water and wind, big chunks of plastic will degrade to micro-sized plastic over time.
- Plastics are made with a variety of chemicals and added “plasticizers” to enhance flexibility and durability.
- Plastics are known to absorb ambient pollutants like PCB (a coolant) and PBDE (a flame retardant) when they reside in polluted waters (2).
- Tiny plastic bits are being mistaken as food and eaten by living organisms, from the tiniest plankton, to lugworms, fish, amphibians, birds, and other mammals.
- Developmental biologists are sounding the alarm about the lasting and harmful health impact of plastics once they enter the world’s food chain.
- Scientists in China even report finding microbeads in table salt (3).
- The World Economic Forum has stated that by 2025, without significant intervention, the planet could have 1 ton of plastic in the ocean for every 3 tons of fish; by 2050 there could be more plastic (by weight) than fish (4).
A false perception exists that the Federal Microbead Ban signed into law in the U.S. in 2015 completely removed the threat of plastic microbeads. However, only SOME products with plastic microbeads were included in the 2015 Federal ban.
Colorado’s HB 1144: Personal Care Products Containing Microbeads Act of 2015 banned the production, manufacture, import, and sale of non-prescription “rinse off” cosmetic products with synthetic microbeads by 2020. The Federal microbead ban is more stringent than the Colorado Act. The Federal Act will take precedence over individual state microbead legislation.
The Federal Microbead Free Waters Act of 2015 (No: 114-114) was signed into law on 12/28/15.
- This Act bans companies from manufacturing cosmetics containing microbeads beginning on July 1, 2017 and from selling them beginning on July 2018.
- It disallows “biodegradable” microbeads (biodegradables are hard to identify, and cannot be depended on to degrade in anything other than an industrial compost facility).
- The Act bans “rinse off “ cosmetics. It does NOT ban “leave on” cosmetics (for ex: some sunscreens, lotions and creams), some of which contain plastic microbeads.
- The FDA will be the implementing authority; it’s up to consumers to report violations once the law is in effect.
- If you want to know if a product contains microbeads, check the ingredient list for polyethylene, polypropylene, poly-ethylene terephthalate, polymethyl methacrylate, polylactic acid, or nylon— these are the most common plastics that make up microbeads (5).
- Don’t buy products containing microbeads.
- Send unused products to a landfill and not down the drain.
- Donate them to organizations like 5 Gyres, which can use them for educational purposes.
- Call the manufacturer and voice your concern.
US states do not know the extent to which outflow from sewage plants contains microplastics. According to Denver’s Metro Waste Water Reclamation District’s Director of Environmental Services, “Metro’s plants do not remove microbeads from the treatment process in any significant amount," which is true for most of the country.
An initial study is recommended to understand quantity and types of microplastics entering our waterways. Study results should guide policy choices. Scientists and advocates familiar with this issue stress the most effective option is to keep plastic out of our waters, rather than cleaning it up after the fact. Public education, incentives to increase recycling, carefully considered product bans, and pushing for corporate accountability can all help with this issue.
Pilot Study Finds Evidence of Microplastics in Colorado’s Headwater Streams
The Inland Ocean Coalition, in partnership with the Marine & Environmental Research Institute (MERI) of Blue Hill, Maine, carried out a pilot study in 2017 that found evidence of microplastics in several high alpine mountain tributaries and urban reaches of Boulder Creek and the South Platte River.
The report, Assessing Microplastics in Colorado Waters: A Pilot Study, used data from citizen-led water sample collection from remote alpine lakes and headwater streams as well as urban reaches of two of the Front Range’s most visible waterways. The study was designed to show the presence - or absence - of microplastics. Sample sites extended from above 11,000 feet elevation near the Continental Divide to below 5,000 feet just outside of Greely, CO. Although the sample size was very small, the goal was to find out whether water collected would show signs of microplastic contamination. The results of the analysis were unexpected – the water sample with the highest count of microplastics particles was collected near the difficult-to-access Fourth of July trailhead miles into protected wilderness outside of Nederland, CO.
“The Inland Ocean Coalition encourages communities to take an active role in land to-sea-stewardship through creek cleanups, plastic pollution reduction efforts, meeting with legislative leaders, local events, and more,” said Vicki N. Goldstein, Founder and Executive Director of the Inland Ocean Coalition. “Because plastic pollution is a widespread issue, we wanted to understand if it was impacting our local waterways.”
Over the past decade, plastic pollution has become a widely recognized issue, especially in coastal environments and ocean gyres that collect plastic and other debris. More recently, studies have exposed another culprit – synthetic clothing, such as fleece jackets and polyester garments, known to shed microfibers when washed.
As plastics are exposed to wind, water and harsh sunlight outside, they break into smaller particles that continue breaking apart until they are too small to see with the human eye. When microplastics enter water and soil, they are readily available to enter the food chain. Organizations around the world are studying these issues, but no one yet has a grasp on how microplastics are influencing Colorado’s water sources or local fisheries.
"Starting in 2012, MERI researchers pioneered the analysis of microplastics in Maine coastal waters and more recently in seafood tissues,” said Dr. Susan Shaw, MERI CEO and Founder. “We were pleased to partner with the Inland Ocean Coalition on this first investigation of Colorado waters, and frankly, the results are alarming – in the “pristine” ecosystems of both Maine and Colorado, we are finding microplastics, and in some areas, the amounts are substantial. To address the question of human exposure, a next step could be to examine microplastics in freshwater fish.”
The Inland Ocean Coalition and the Marine & Environmental Research Institute intend to use the findings of this study to pursue future research support and to learn more about the environmental and human health impacts of microplastics in Colorado waters.
For more information, please contact: Vicki Nichols Goldstein, Inland Ocean Coalition Executive Director firstname.lastname@example.org or Erin Sams Cooper, Inland Ocean Coalition Advisory Board, Watershed Initiatives email@example.com.
(1) Scientific Evidence Supports a Ban on Microbeads, Environmental Science & Technology 2015 49 (18), 10759-10761 DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.5b03909, Chelsea M. Rochman, et.al.
(2) How Plastic Pollution Can Carry Flame Retardants into your Sushi, Smithsonian Magazine, November 21, 2013, Jo-seph Stromberg, (Smithsonian.com).
(3) Microplastic Pollution in Table Salts from China, Environmental Science & Technology 2015 49 (22), 13622-13627. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.5b03163, Dongqi Yang, et. Al.
(4) More Plastic than Fish in the Ocean by 2050: Report Offers Blueprint for Change, https://www.weforum.org/press/2016/01/more-plastic-than-fish-in-the-ocean-by-2050-report-offers-blueprint-for-change/, World Economic Forum, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Co.
(5) Plastic Soup Foundation, http://beatthemicrobead.org/en/product-lists.