Space & Innovation

8 Trillion Small Plastic Pieces Enter Aquatic Habitats Daily

As small as a grain of sand, the tiny plastic beads are commonly used in personal care products -- and they're getting everywhere.

In the United States alone, more than 8 trillion plastic microbeads enter aquatic habitats each day - often with dire consequences to wildlife - researchers from 7 different institutions suggest in a newly published study.

As small as a grain of sand, the tiny plastic beads are commonly used in personal care products such as toothpaste and body wash, adding a hint of grittiness to products intended to scrub, clean and exfoliate.

Photos: Life on the Ocean Floor Garbage Patch

Because of their extremely small size, the beads aren't caught by filtration systems, leaving them to wash freely through sewage treatment plants and back into the ocean. The beads are not biodegradable and often end up being ingested by wildlife.

"We've demonstrated in previous studies that microplastic of the same type, size and shape as many microbeads can transfer contaminants to animals and cause toxic effects," study lead author Chelsea Rochman explains in a news release.

"We argue that the scientific evidence regarding microplastic supports legislation calling for a removal of plastic microbeads from personal care products."

A dozen states have already taken steps to remove plastic microbeads from personal care products, although Rochman and her colleagues point out that there are still legislative loopholes that need to be closed.

Supposedly Healthy Things That Aren't

The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 was introduced in Congress earlier this year; the proposed federal legislation would "ban cosmetics that contain synthetic plastic microbeads" beginning in 2018.

According to Environmental Advocates of New York, several leading producers of personal care products have already taken steps to remove microbeads from their products.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated for clarity.

Out To Sea

Our oceans have a pollution problem. Over a decade ago, the North Pacific Gyre was discovered harboring untold tons of plastic trash, and quickly became known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch." It was a shocking wake-up call to the world which showed that even the most remote corners of the global were not immune to our throw-away culture. There are five main gyres in Earth's oceans. In January, members of the ocean advocacy group 5 Gyres set out to chart the North Atlantic Gyre. They're suspicion: that the world's water was more polluted than anyone knew, and that a "Great Atlantic Garbage Patch" was lurking somewhere between the U.S. Virgin Islands and Bermuda. But no one had ever looked for it before.

First Trawl

No sooner had the first trawling net been raised from the water than the crew's worst fears were confirmed: plastic. The material's pervasiveness struck Stiv Wilson who, as he says, "began the cruise an independent journalist, and ended it a board member of 5 Gyres." "If you look for it, you will find plastic everywhere, in or out of the gyres," Wilson said. "If you go two miles off the coast of San Francisco and trawl you will find it. It's denser in the gyres, but it's everywhere."

Sampling by Hand

Most of the brown gunk in this image is natural. It's sargassum algae, which gives the North Atlantic Gyre its other name: Sargasso Sea. But the white flecks researchers are reaching for are chunks of plastic floating near the surface. Contrary to what many people think, ocean "garbage patches" are really more like thin stews of pollution. All shapes and sizes of plastic trash hang in the water column, sometimes very spread out, sometimes arranged by wind patterns into dense lines that extend to the horizon.

The Big Stuff

During nearly 40 trawls of the North Atlantic Gyre taken throughout the trip, the net never came up empty. "We got plastic every single time," Wilson said. This pile of garbage was hauled out of the water by hand over the course of about 40 minutes. "This was just two people using crappy pool nets to scoop stuff up," Wilson said. "We got 10 percent of all the stuff in the water, maybe."

The Little Stuff

In amongst small-fry lanternfish are blue flecks of plastic, and even a few BB-sized pellets of "nurdles" -- bits of virgin plastic that fell off a freighter or were washed down a river and into the ocean before they were ever made into a product. "As I like to say, 'shit rolls downhill, and at the very bottom of the hill are the oceans,'" Wilson said. Major rivers like the Columbia and the Mississippi can carry huge amounts of plastics into the oceans, where they remain permanently. Once in the open ocean, plastic may be mistaken for food by fish like the lanternfish. Scientists don't know how often this happens, but they worry that chemicals trapped in plastic could leach into animal tissues and begin a slow march up the food web. Sea birds, large ocean predators -- even people -- may be having this stuff for lunch without even knowing it.

Plastic Reef

Along for the ride was Dutch artist Maarten vanden Eynde (left), who is collecting material to build a reef 40 meters long by 10 meters wide (131 x 33 feet) out of plastic removed from the ocean. He was not disappointed. The expedition collected 876 pounds of plastic, some of it from beaches in the Virgin Islands and Bermuda, but mostly from the open ocean. That included what Stiv Wilson called "his favorite piece of plastic" (right) -- a small fleck with the word "from" still visible, looking like a fractured message from whoever discarded it.

A Losing Battle?

Hauling plastic out of the oceans by hand is never going to work. Wilson said that for the time it takes to fill a freighter with junk, several times that much will be dumped into the sea through everyday human activity. "It's growing at an alarming rate," he said, though he admitted that no one's really sure how much plastic is dumped every year, or how much makes its way to the gyres.

What's Next?

Like the name says, the goal of 5 Gyres is to explore all five of Earth's main ocean gyres. So far the North Atlantic and Pacific gyres are the only ones to have been extensively surveyed. But Wilson said that his colleagues have found plastic in the Indian Ocean gyre during a recent preliminary cruise. "The problem is growing at an alarming rate," he said. The only way to stop it is a dramatic reduction of the plastic we use today, especially single-use items like coffe cup lids, grogery bags, and soda straws. "You're not seeing car bumpers out there," Wilson said. "It sounds trite, but really what's needed is a grassroots effort to reduce our addiction to single-use plastics."