David Atttenborough’s legacy will be huge.
The Blue Planet effect has made the whole world sit up and pay attention to the plight of our marine life. There really is no defense left for humanity’s reliance on single-use plastics purely for the sake of convenience. But there is another inconvenient truth that we’re all ignoring, and that is that it isn’t all about plastic. Sure, plastic bags, plastic bottles, disposable nappies and santiary products are a threat. But so too are microplastics in our bathroom products, and the chemicals we clean ourselves and our houses with every day.
So what can we do? It comes down to our choices.
Problem #1: Disposable nappies
Disposable nappies are made using an assortment of natural and chemical components. Petrochemical plastics (polythene and polypropylene) and wood pulp (bleached) are the main components: although the majority of manufacturers are pretty cagey about much else, typical listings include sodium polyacrylate, dyes, perfumes, and dioxins. Dioxins are a by-product of the pulp-bleaching process that the World Health Organisation identifies as extremely toxic. TBT (Tributyltin) found in some nappies on sale in the UK and the US, is identified as extremely harmful to aquatic life and does not degrade. These chemicals may not be dangerous to our kids on a single nappy basis – the TBT found in a single nappy may not be harmful to ocean-life either – but the 8 million nappies sent to landfill EVERY SINGLE DAY in the UK alone might add up to something substantially more dangerous…
Solution: Choose real nappies
Problem #2: Laundry
Laundry is one of those daily chores we’d all rather have less of (although I may be one of the few people who finds hanging out the washing a great opportunity for a moment of mindfulness and folding laundry strangely therapeutic!) For some of us, the search for laundry products that don’t inflame sensitive skin leads us to natural alternatives early on. But even those of us who can cope with more synthetic chemical formulas could take into account the effects of those chemicals on the environment. According to the FPS for Health, Food Chain Safety and Environment, detergents are at least partly responsible for eutrophication of rivers; the decline of coastal plants subjected to polluted spray; and the disturbance of aquatic organisms. As a result of detergents released into the waterways, fish and invertebrates can’t find adequate oxygen and die by asphyxiation. When not treated fully in water treatment plants, the surfactants in detergents affect the natural defences of these organisms (their skin, scales, shell, walls of the plants or the bacteria) against chemical substances and pathogens. And some surfactants such as ethylene glycol disrupt the hormonal system of aquatic animals.
Solution: Buy natural laundry and detergent products
Problem #3: Laundry again
Laundry again because it is actually a major issue: beyond the effect of our detergents on the oceans, there’s the effect of all those microplastics released in every load of synthetic clothing. Research from Plymouth University in 2017 suggests that washing 6kg of clothes can result in anything between 137,951 fibres (for polyester-cotton clothes) to 728,789 fibres (for acrylic clothes) released as oceanic pollution. These microfibres are too small to be caught in the sewage treatment works, and usually end up ingested by fish larvae and ultimately in our food chain. Yum!
Solution: Buy organic clothing
Problem # 4: Microbeads
Microbeads were banned in the UK in January of this year, meaning that we can rest assured we are no longer releasing microplastics into our oceans when we scrub, clean or exfoliate, right? Well, sort of… the UK, like the US, introduced a ban of microbeads in “rinse-off” products. That means that they are still used in products that are NOT expected to be rinsed off – including suncreams, where they act as barriers to reflect harmful rays, and make-up, for their light-reflecting properties. Nano-particles are also exempt from the ban and remain present in household cleaning products, amongst others. “Sunspheres”, particles of 0.0003 mm that are put in sunscreens, can be present in quantities of between 10 and 100 trillion particles in one single product.
Solution: Avoid products containing microbeads
Problem #5: Sunscreen
Sunspheres aside, sunscreen is a major player in marine pollution on a chemcal level too, to the point that many coral reef parks, eco-resorts and swin-with-the-dolphins aquariums now insist on reef-friendly sunscreens from a pre-approved list. An estimated 25 per cent of the sunscreen ingredients we apply end up in the water. Chemicals including oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, octisalate, avobenzone and homosalate have been identified as especially harmful for eco-systems, making coral more susceptible to bleaching, deforming baby coral (causing it to encase itself in its own skeleton and die) and degrading its resilience to climate change. Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3, BP-3), found in over 3500 sunscreens, is also harmful to algae, sea urchins, fish and mammals, showing amongst other things to disrupt their hormones.