Micro-plastics in the sea becoming an increasing problem
If you take a shower and if you use shower gel, you may not be aware that the manufacturers of the shower gel add tiny fragments of plastic, called microbeads, to the product as exfoliants. It is estimated that the average shower results in some 100,000 microbeads exiting down the plug hole.
And these tiny fragments of plastic are not just in shower gel, they are a common component of toothpastes, facial scrubs, cosmetics, other personal care products, household cleaners, detergents and abrasive surface cleaning products. Countless millions of microbeads must be disappearing down plug holes every day.
Nylon is a plastic; a synthetic polymer. If you wash a nylon jumper in a washing machine the garment sheds thousands of tiny fibres as it tumbles around in the drum. Like the microbeads, these thousands of tiny plastic fibres disappear down the outlet pipe of the washing machine.
These microbeads and fibres end up in sewer pipes or septic tanks. They cannot be easily removed by wastewater treatment plants and being persistent they eventually find their way into rivers, the sea, the soil and eventually the oceans.
Microbeads and fibres and all other fragments of plastic less than 5mm in diameter come under the umbrella-term 'micro-plastics'. Micro-plastics are becoming an increasing problem as they are finding their way into the food be eat, wildlife, sediments on the ocean floor and even ice in the Arctic Ocean.
The use of micro-plastics in Ireland is largely unregulated, their pathways and presence in our environment is not systematically monitored or measured and their impacts in the human food chain are, at best, poorly understood, at worst, unknown.
On the positive side, issues regarding plastic pollution are gaining increased awareness and we are promised legislation that will not alone address plastic waste in our seas and oceans but will also provide the legislative basis for a network of marine protected areas as required by the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and make necessary amendments to the Dumping at Sea Acts.
Considering the need to maintain the free movement of goods, Ireland holds a formal position that we wish to see microbeads banned throughout the European Union. A very large body of technical work needs to be completed to achieve that objective. Hopefully, progress will be made at a rate that will ensure the wellbeing of people, the environment that we depend on, and the oceans that are the heart and lungs of our planet.