Maritime Matters

Microbeads and Microfibre: A Big Challenge for Blue Economy

27 Nov, 2017    ·   5397

Dr Vijay Sakhuja analyses the impact of these minuscule materials on marine life

A recent BBC documentary titled Blue Planet II that has an agonising three-minute clip of a dead pilot whale moving along with her dead calf, apparently poisoned due to chemical pollution, left many audiences in shock. Wildlife expert Sir David Attenborough, the narrator of the documentary, pleaded, “Unless the flow of plastics and industrial pollution into the world’s oceans is reduced, marine life will be poisoned by them for many centuries to come.”

While plastic litter has been acknowledged as one of the many pollutants being dumped into the sea, two more materials - microbeads and microfibre - have been discovered deep in the oceans and are affecting marine life. However tiny these may be, the sheer scale of the problem they pose is enormous. Some countries have banned the use of microbeads, and clothing companies are being asked to step up in a big way to address the problem of microfibre.

Microbeads are tiny particles of plastic found in ‘wash-off, rinse-off, and leave-on’ personal care products for scrubbing, exfoliating and cleansing. These are found in body wash prodcuts, scrubs, age-defying makeup products, lip gloss, lipstick, nail polish and even toothpastes, and are washed by the billions every day into drains. Most wastewater treatment plants and systems cannot filter out microbeads which end up in large and small water bodies such as oceans, rivers, lakes and static ponds. Microbeads can absorb contaminants such as pesticides, flame retardants, motor oil, etc, and are inadvertently consumed by marine life all the way up into human food.

It is estimated that five mililitre of facial scrub contains between 4,500 and 9,4,500 microbeads. The Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), an international body that represents the cosmetics industry worldwide, has conceded that they understand the problem and are voluntarily phasing out plastic microbeads in scrub products. However, they argue that microbeads represent only “the tiniest fraction of plastic pollution in aquatic environments” and that 99 per cent of the microbeads are removed by water purification plants. In the US, acknowledging the impact of microbeads on marine and human life, President Obama signed the Microbeads Free Waters Act of 2015, barring the use of plastic microbeads in personal care products sold in the country.

While that may be the case with developed countries. particularly in Europe and the US, the microbeads menace in developing countries is far worse. The existing sewage treatment plants are not designed to capture and remove microbeads. For instance, a report by the Environment and Social Development Organisation (ESDO), Bangladesh, notes that nearly 7928.02 billion microbeads are washed every month into the rivers, canals and other water bodies in major cities such as Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet. Further, little is known about the adverse impact of microbeads on marine life, and the fish confuse them for eggs or zooplankton and accidentally ingest them. The report has called on the government to bring about legislation banning the use of microplastic and microbeads in the country.

The issue of microfibre is as complex as microbeads. Nearly 60 per cent of all clothing used by humans is made of synthetic (acrylic, nylon and polyester) fabrics. Synthetic fibres are non-biodegradable and soak up as the molecules of harmful chemical pollutants found in wastewater. Scientists believe that synthetic fibres from apparel are a threat to both the environment as also marine life, which forms an important component of the human food chain. Among these, acrylic has been identified as the worst microfibre-shedding material, up to four times faster than the polyester-cotton blend.

Even though clothing made from natural fibres such as cotton and wool may be biodegradable, it can be a source of contamination for marine life given that the cotton-growers use hazardous insecticides. The remedy lies in using non-genetically engineered organic cotton or wool items with natural dyes that can help solve marine environmental problems.

It is estimated that 1.4 million trillion microfibres are already contaminating the world's waters. Further, tests have revealed that a synthetic fleece jacket releases an average of 1.7 grams of microfibre and top loading washing machines release about 530 per cent more microfibre than front loading models. To get a better sense of the problem, a study notes that “100,000 people could send anywhere from 20 to 240 pounds of microfibres into local waterbodies daily, which averages out to around 15,000 plastic bags.” Ironically, "clothing brands have been slow to respond to this growing threat" but some brands such as Patagonia and Nike are engaged in research to respond to the impact of microfibre.

The presence of microbeads and microfibres in the oceans, seas and rivers poses a major challenge for the development of 'Blue Economy', which is high on the agenda of a large number of countries. If the aim is to harness the resources of the seas in a sustainable manner, society may need to take a step back and think about the everyday products they use.  The remedy lies in accurately understanding the ‘extent, nature and sources’ of microbeads and microfibres before using these products, which certainly enhance human appearance, but adversely impact the marine environment. Perhaps the reason for the lack of a robust response to the problem is that nobody wants to take responsibility.