The tiny plastic pollutants that end up on your dinner plate
Originally published at the South China Morning Post on July 16, 2016.
Images of pollution in Hong Kong have been dominated recently by scenes of plastic bags and bottles piling ashore the city’s beaches. But there is another smaller, more innocuous culprit adding to the city’s environmental problems: microbeads.
Microbeads are tiny plastic particles found in personal care products like facial scrubs and toothpastes that are making their way into the ocean through the city’s sewage and drainage system. Once in the water, they can end up in the digestive tracts of marine animals that are ultimately consumed by humans.
The US last year signed legislation banning microbeads, which will come into effect in July 2017.
Last week research by Greenpeace showed that microplastic pollutants, including microbeads, had been found in around 170 types of commonly consumed seafood including mussels, oysters and lobsters.
A Baptist University survey commissioned by Greenpeace also showed that 85 per cent of 804 adults polled did not know that certain products contained microbeads, and two-thirds did not know that they were marine pollutants.
The research prompted calls from local environmental groups and experts to follow the US’ lead and legislate a ban on the sale of products containing microbeads.
But the government is standing firm on its refusal to ban or regulate microbeads, saying that the impact of the plastic particles is “still an emerging environmental topic” and more research needs to be done.
“Our monitoring data show that the levels of toxic substances in our marine waters … are low and do not exceed local and overseas standards. Thus the potential environmental impact of microbeads should be relatively low in the local context,” an Environmental Protection Department spokesman said.
The spokesman went on to point out that the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment had concluded that microbeads do not pose a health risk, and that Hong Kong’s sewage treatment plants do not discharge into lakes or reservoirs.
Lincoln Fok, assistant professor at Education University’s department of science and environmental studies who conducts research on microbeads, said the fact that the US was banning the pollutant and other countries were considering action showed there was sufficient research for countries to legislate against it.
Although it is true that microbeads make up a low portion of the marine pollution in Hong Kong waters, it is much easier to control the emission of microbeads than other general plastic waste into the ocean, Fok said. There are also natural alternatives to microbeads like seeds that are biodegradable, he added.
“Legislation would prevent all of the pollutants from entering the ocean,” Fok said. “It can be targeted into one single type of product, and the [government] can do it more easily than banning general plastic debris.”
There has been no extensive research conducted on the removal rates of microbeads in the city’s wastewater treatment facilities. Fok estimated that the system can remove 99 per cent of the microbeads, yet he said that the remaining 1 per cent still accounted for thousands of tiny plastic particles. One gramme of a facial scrub contained about 10,000 microbeads, he said.
“It’s because of the sheer number of microbeads in these products. They are very small. So even [with] a removal rate of 99 per cent ... we’ve still got a lot of plastic particles going into the sea, and the impact on the ecosystem is not fully understood.”
According to Julia Leung, programme manager of education at Plastic Free Seas, awareness of microbeads and how they affect the marine environment is poor among Hongkongers. The government should force companies to label products that contain microbeads, she said. Plastics commonly used as microbeads include polyethylene.
“In order to stop this, we just need the government to ban it. Most people do not know that we have plastic in our products,” Leung said. “Even for people who are aware ... they don’t know what to choose.”
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: tiny ocean peril is a big worry