Microbeads and the Plastic Smog: How We're Saving Our Seas

06/05/2015 04:05 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016
Marcus Eriksen

"Well, you don't have cavities, but there's plastic wedged between your teeth," is what dentists are saying to many patients these days. It's on your face, too, and traveling through your body. Microplastics are creating a smog of synthetic waste that's permeating the global ocean, and some of it begins in your bathroom sink.

After sailing around the world skimming the ocean surface with fine-mesh nets to capture plastic trash, we pooled our data with other scientists and published the first estimate of plastic pollution of all sizes drifting globally, amounting to 269,000 metric tons from 5.25 trillion individual pieces, of which 92% of it is microplastic smaller than a grain of rice. We've found microplastic on beaches worldwide, in ice cores, and vertically downward into seafloor sediments.

You can rid your mind of conceptions of "trash islands" or "garbage patches" and visualize the global spread of microplastic in the ocean the same way we could literally see smog over our cities. Air pollution is a particulate of carbon, swirling with atmospheric currents and slowly settling to the ground. Plastic smog is a particulate of hydrocarbon swirling with ocean currents and settling to the seafloor. It's the same thing. What follows is the same solution. The successful emissions controls to clean air equate to "emission controls" on land to prevent the flow of trash to the sea. Those fanciful ideas to net ocean plastic are hogwash, and even a distraction from the uphill fight to prevent the problem and phase out the worst-offending plastic products.

But what can be done to stop microplastics from taking over the planet? Isn't this the penultimate Tragedy of the Commons? With tremendous difficulty to identify what products are polluting the ocean, much less point to a country as the culprit, what can be done? Are we simply bystanders to an unfolding catastrophe of synthetic chemistry? The solution lies upstream.

In 2013, we sailed across the Great Lakes with Sam Mason of SUNY Fredonia, discovering thousands of microplastic spheres and angular fragments unlike anything we've seen anywhere else in the oceans -- perfect round blue, green, red and purple spheres the size of sand. Colleagues at the Plastic Soup Foundation in Amsterdam directed us to the nearest pharmacy. With a dozen facial scrubs and toothpastes, and a pack of coffee filters, we went to work sieving out the abrasive grains. Using a scanning electron microscope (SEM), Mason compared the pollution to the microbeads in the products and found the color, texture, size, shape and chemical composition were a match.

For the first time in the global study of microplastic pollution, we could link the pollution to the producer. We could point to a company and a country. We published our results, and launched a public campaign to stop companies from putting microplastics in products designed to wash down the drain and too small to be captured in sewage treatment.

If you want to see what a million plastic microbeads look like, take three tubes of Johnson & Johnson "Clean and Clear" and wash it through a coffee filter. These are designed microplastics with no chance of efficient recovery. It's the poster child of poor design. Easy fix, right? No brainer, huh? Not quite. The Personal Care Product Council (PCPC), an industry-lobby group, has strategically introduced industry-friendly legislation statewide and also a national bill in the U.S. Senate to subvert our attempts to introduce good legislation. The PCPC's goal is to replace polyethylene and polypropylene microbeads with a biopolymer that mimics the status quo, but doesn't degrade in the ocean. It replaces the problem with the same problem. At the same time, a wide coalition of environmental NGOs are submitting "good legislation" with ocean health as a priority. Two bills are on the table.

At the end of May 2015, there are now 22 states with legislation passed or pending to restrict the sale of products containing plastic microbeads, and one national bill. But which ones are good or bad? The first bill that passed was in Illinois, which was rushed through and made the PCPC very happy. Bad bill. In California, two bills were introduced at the same time, and with persistent negotiations and public pressure, the PCPC withdrew their bill and AB888 sailed through the state legislature. Good bill.

We are winning. A national coalition of environmental NGO's has formed to intercept bad bills and work closely with Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ), who introduced HR 1321, the Microbead-free Waters Act of 2015. When we win, billions of microbeads will cease to contribute to the trillions of microplastic particles forming the plastic smog of our seas, and we will be closer to a culture of producer responsibility for full product life.

The idea of using plastic in any form that pollutes the ocean must become as taboo as smoking in restaurants or not putting a seatbelt on your child. We will have won when the thought of plastic pollution drifting across the ocean is unthinkable in the present, and only a vestige of our memory.

Marcus Eriksen researches plastic pollution, it's global distribution and impacts on our oceans. As the research director for the 5 Gyres Institute, he leads annual expeditions across the oceanic accumulation zones where plastics migrate, fragment and redistribute globally. He and the 5 Gyres team actively turn research into advocacy, with the aim of responsible plastic production and a plastic-free ocean.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action. The series is being produced to coincide with World Oceans Day (June 8), as part of HuffPost's "What's Working" initiative, putting a spotlight on initiatives around the world that are solutions oriented. To read all the posts in the series, read here.