Microplastics and Plastic Soup

Blog post by Becky Marlow, Film Club Officer

We welcomed Jessica Hickie from the Plastic and Sustainability team of the Environment Agency to discuss microfibres and the environmental issues impacting the WI 2017 End Plastic Soup Campaign. Jessica’s team aim to by raising awareness and generating behaviour changes to prevent plastics getting into the oceans. A Belle met a colleague of Jessica’s at the 2018 WI Conference, discussing the End Plastic Soup campaign.

Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic (<5mm). A major source of microplastic pollution is from synthetic fibres, which are shed from clothing when washed. Never flush wet wipes too as they are a big source. As they are too small to be caught by washing machine filters and the sewage system, they end up in the sea. Here these particles can be ingested by aquatic life, posing a health risk to them. 

Plastics in our environment – what can we do? 

Together we can make plastic pollution a thing of the past and the WI has led major campaigns, including the 1954 “Keep Britain Tidy”, 1971 “Plastic Pollution in Farming” and the 2017 “Plastic Soup Campaign” to highlight these issues.

Since the 1950s, plastic revolutionised society and lead to throwaway living, advertising single-use plastic as a way to cut down on household chores! 

Whilst we know plastic pollution is a global problem, Jessica highlighted with some pretty grim pictures of the banks of the Thames that plastic pollution is a problem closer to home too! Plastic escaping from overflowing bins and deliberate littering are ways plastic enters our rivers that flow into the ocean. Britain produces 4 million tonnes of rubbish per year (think of a car as being a tonne and then picture 4 million of those!) Plastic is also in many items we might not think of, for example a menstrual pad is as much plastic as four carrier bags.

Plastic pollution may seem like an overwhelming problem, with the future trend likely to be that we are going to producing more and more plastic, but we can fix it.

Prof. Richard Thompson, University of Plymouth OBE is researching the effects of plastic debris in the marine environment. Effects of plastic in the environment are:

  • Entanglement – animals getting caught up in plastic items
  • Ingestion – zooplankton ingest microplastics – fish ingest the zooplankton – predators, such as seals, ingest contaminated prey
  • Toxins – plastic debris is hydrophobic meaning that is gets integrated into body fat – what is this impact on human health?

Primary Microplastics include those coming from tyre wear, run off of acrylic paint, cosmetics (but now plastic microbeads are banned yay!) and the first wash of synthetic clothing, which releases 50% of microfibers.

Products that we can use in washing machines are guppy bags (https://guppyfriend.com/en/) or cora balls (https://coraball.com/). They are capture the microplastics released in the wash. Good news is that water treatment plants do capture 99% of microplastics in water, however its not removed from sewage sludge, which is spread on the land. Research is now going on to see what impacts these microplastics are having on soil health and rivers.

We can help by educating, supporting research and campaigning to change policy. But the best ways are too:

  • AVOID using plastic
  • REDUCE what you use
  • REUSE where you can
  • RECYCLE everything that you can

My personal pledge is going to be around washing : 

  • Wash less – only wash clothes when they need it
  • Fill washing machine to max – this results in less friction between clothes
  • Wash at low temperatures
  • When cleaning the dryer – put lint in the bin 

But we discussed lots of ways we can REUSE as well. Suggestions were:

  • Buy secondhand – Ebay is a great option – especially for toys and other plastic items
  • Use Tupperware at work, or if you need to eat at your desk, then bring a plate from the canteen and wash it up afterwards rather than using a meal tray
  • Use a milkman
  • Guppy bag in the wash
  • Keep Cups for coffee, tea etc.
  • Deposit and Return Schemes – Tesco Loop
  • Plastic-free Peckham
  • Christmas Shopping – consider buying an experience rather than an item

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