Holidays on a plastic beach? How microplastics harm us

Microplastics as far as the eye can see. Instead of crystal clear water and rocky beach I see colorful plastic parts, an old fishing net, numerous cigarette butts and even an old toothbrush between the stones. Even the sea view destroys the idyll of my chosen vacation spot: a big transparent tarp floats on the water.

Did I imagine my vacation like this? Not really. In my daydreams I was spending my time lying on my beach towel with a good book at a beautiful abandoned spot in the south of Europe overlooking crystal clear water. Now my view reminded me of a landfill.

More plastic than fish

Plastic is a synthetic organic polymer based on mineral oil or natural gas and is not biodegradable. According to a study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, around eight million tons of plastic reach our oceans every year – this is equivalent to one garbage truck per minute. In 32 years, the study says, there will be more plastics in our oceans than fish.

Germans are considered recycling world champions and other countries have now realized that plastic waste can be recycled to make new products. So why does the future of the seas look so bleak?

Unfortunately, only about 14% of plastic waste is effectively recycled worldwide. 54% are disposed of in  landfills or waste incineration plants. The rest, and that is about 32%, ends up in our oceans. Water pollution is  not only caused by poor waste disposal, but also by the use of plastic in numerous cosmetics and care products as well as synthetic fibers in clothing.

Only water and microplastics allowed on my skin

A variety of cosmetic products such as peelings or toothpaste contain microbeads made from plastics which have an abrasive function. In exfoliating products, plastic is used in powdered or abrasives granules. In addition, wet wipes for the removal of make-up, intimate care or other caring application are made from synthetic fibers.

Due to its small size, microplastics in cosmetic products (less than 5 mm), wet wipes and synthetic garments usually pass the sewage treatment plants  unhindered and end up in rivers, lakes and seas. Thus, microplastics can be found in large numbers in the water systems. There, animals often confuse these synthetic particles as food and end up in the food chain. Residues of microplastics have already been detected in fish and herbivores.

Solutions for the prevention of microplastics

Some cosmetics manufacturers have already changed their product range and use only raw materials made of natural origin in their products. For exfoliating products, these may be ground apricot kernels or bees wax beads. In addition to their naturalness, these are also biodegradable. The ingredient list helps consumers choose environmentally friendly products. With the app „Beat the Microbead“ developed by the Plastic Soup Foundation and the North Sea Foundation  consumers can check if a product contains microplastics.
For wet wipes, care should be taken that they consist entirely of natural and biodegradable fibers.

In order for consumers to know how to dispose of products, cosmetics manufacturers usually provide information about the appropriate disposal options on the packaging. In the EU wet toilet paper must have a rinsing certification. This certifies that the moist toilet paper decomposes in the sewage treatment plant. Only products with the „flushable“ logo may be disposed of via the toilet.

What you can do

  • Avoid plastic wrapping and plastic bags offered at supermarkets and stores. Bring your own reusable bag and containers and properly recycle your waste at home.
  • Ditch toothpaste and cosmetics containing microplastic beads. Such ingredients are usually labeled as „synthetic“.
  • Leave no footprint in nature. After your picknick, take your garbage with you and don’t flip your cigarette butt into the landscape.
  • Be a role model. Take a small bag with you on your next beach walk or mountain hike and collect carelessly thrown away garbage on the way. This makes the place much nicer for the people coming after you.
  • Consume less. Reduction is the solution to environmental protection and greater social equality. Just do without the latest trend in the bathroom and your wardrobe.
  • Participate in garbage collection activities or beach cleanups in your community. In many towns and cities, there are cleanups that remove garbage from the landscape.
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