The Great Pacific Garbage patch is often imagined as a plastic soup of empty bottles, bags, lost toys, singular flip-flops, and other plastic flotsam floating about in the ocean. While this image has been useful for combatting littering and promoting recycling, at least half of the plastic waste comes from nets, ropes, and other fishery and merchant navy waste. But plastic waste is more than just unsightly. Plastic photodegrades in sunlight, and these smaller, microscopic and even molecular pieces of plastic, have the dramatic effects on the planet.
Microplastics, in sufficient concentrations, prevent sunlight from reaching phytoplankton, which kills them, disrupting the entire food chain and lowering oxygen levels in the water. Numerous small fish and other aquatic creatures, deprived of their main food source, mistake them for food, and then effectively starve to death because their stomachs are full of indigestible plastic. Microplastics make their way up the food chain as well, and even if we do not consume the parts of the fish that have them, they can be detected in sea salt and seaweed products.
Microbeads are a major source of microplastics. These tiny plastic particles are found in facial scrubs, shampoos, and toothpastes, for the purpose of creating a cleansing sensation. However, they are too small to be filtered by water treatment facilities, and as they do not sink to adhere to waste water sludge, microbeads eventually float into the environment. Microbead use isn’t the only source of microplastic – microplastics are the consequence of photodegradation of plastic – but it is perhaps the easiest source to eliminate. While the US has a plan in place to phase out the use of microbeads in personal care products and Canada has declared them toxic (and therefore subject to regulations), attempts to ban microbeads in the EU have been stymied by free trade agreements. Nevertheless, the public generally supports bans on microbeads.
Plastics are a problem at the molecular level, as well. Ingredients such as polyethylene (PE) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET), but also a wide range of dispersants which are commonly found in cosmetics and detergents, comprise a substantial portion of the sludge that remains after wastewater treatment is complete. Burning this sludge is hazardous and energy-intensive. Not only are these components unsustainably produced, disposing of them requires even more energy.
Scientists in Bath have recently uncovered a way to make biodegradable microbeads out of cellulose, and if this can be replicated at scale it could revolutionize the personal care industry. After all, cellulose beads are sustainably produced, easy to degrade and on top of all non toxic. At Sirius we encourage companies to substitute environmentally unfriendly chemicals with sustainably produced and/or biodegradable products whenever possible. While our specialty is not in plastics, we do carry biodegradable polymers such as Briteframe PESA and Briteframe PASP, as well as cellulose derivatives Cellubrite CMC, which therefore minimizes the impact on the planet. As climate change becomes undeniable and the effects are increasingly pronounced, finding environmentally friendly ways to do things is not just good press – they’re good for the planet and everybody on it.
The Sirius Effect:
With the Netherlands for 26% below sea level, the Dutch hold a reputation for battling the sea. It is time to change course and rescue the sea from mankind. This must be a joint effort, though – the problem of microplastics and production is beyond one company. Won’t you join us? Contact us to find out how.