Microplastics are a Growing Problem that Needs a Global Solution


We know about the plastic problems we actually can see. The bags, packaging, and drink bottles we use everyday are common sources of litter. Far too many of these end up in landfills, or worse, polluting the land and ocean. As it turns out, the plastic that we can’t see, microplastics, are just as (if not more) harmful. Despite recent moves, including a ban that was signed by President Barack Obama last year, microplastics can still be found in far too many products. Here’s more on the problem and the role you can play in helping solve this global issue.

The Problem with Microplastics

Microplastics are, as their name implies, tiny. Sometimes called nanoparticles or microbeads, they come primarily from materials used in personal care products and clothing. Think exfoliating shampoos, soap bars, fleece jackets, nylon shorts, or those little dots in toothpaste.

A few years ago, we didn’t know much about microplastic or its impact on the environment. But a wave of publicity, chiefly from a growing scientific consensus that this is a major problem, led to companies like Unilever announcing they would no longer use microplastics in their products. This was followed by the aforementioned nationwide ban.

Though the ban is a huge step in the right direction, it is not enough. For starters, it doesn’t come into full effect until 2017, meaning many products can still be found on shelves across the country that contain microplastics. The ban also only applies to plastics less than 5mm in size, meaning slightly larger microplastics are still okay. Moreover, it doesn’t address a major source of microplastic pollution.

Bigger Plastic Becomes Microplastic

This other major source of microplastics? Regular sized plastics. If any plastic litter gets into waterways, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming more microplastic.

Unfortunately, we’re only producing more and more plastic. In 2014, global plastic production hit 311 metric tons, a 4% increase over the previous year. There are no signs that this trend will stop anytime soon. In the U.S., not much of our plastic is recycled compared to what we produce, and in countries like Indonesia and Vietnam, where solid waste systems are not as advanced as ours, huge amounts of plastic ends up in the ocean.

Moreover, while the US may have banned microplastics, they are still legal and in use in many other countries. What we need is a strong and coordinated global effort to eliminate microplastic production, reduce large plastic production, and improve recycling systems to ensure no plastic ends up as pollution in the world’s oceans. Currently, there has been little action at the international level despite calls from the United Nations Environmental Program.

On the bright side, companies like Unilever, Colgate Palmolive, and L’Oreal already eliminated microplastic production, not only where required by law, but throughout their global supply chains. We’re seeing rare convergence on this issue, as around the world, NGOs, consumers, Governments, and companies are all coming together to try to figure out a solution to the microplastics problem.

Microplastics are a major global problem, as they can be found in waterways around the world. Major sources of microplastics are clothing and personal care products, and, despite the ban, they are still allowed to be sold until 2017. In the meantime, be conscientious of your role in the consumption of products known for microplastics.

Nithin is an eecosphere Impact Mill and freelance writer who focuses on cultural, economic, and environmental issues in developing countries with an aim at building channels of communication and collaboration around common challenges. He alternates between a home in California and working on social projects in Africa and Asia.