I’m a 34 year old environmental scientist, and I’ve just been schooled by a nursery on an environmental issue.
All eyes seem to be on the subject of plastic pollution at present, thanks to the combined efforts of environmental groups from Surfers Against Sewage to Greenpeace, the takeup by large businesses who are getting rid of or phasing out single use plastics like straws, and of course the BBC wildlife show Blue Planet.
Personally, I’ve felt closer to the issue since living near the coast, and seeing how much rubbish washes up on the strandline every day. I try and remember to take a rubbish bag with me when I go to the beach to do a spot of beach cleaning before I leave.
But it was the news last week of a nursery school ‘banning’ glitter to reduce microplastic pollution that really got me thinking.
I love glitter! I have a stash of it myself, which I use for crafts and homemade cards, and more in the form of makeup, which I use for samba performances, gigs, parties and festivals. It sounds ridiculous to me now, but it had simply not occurred to me that most of it is made of tiny pieces of plastic, which end up in the environment.
I was well aware of the plastic pollution issue, that the plastics we don’t see can be even more harmful than the ones we see on the beach, of the microbeads added to certain cosmetics and cleaners, and the damage they cause, and would never knowingly buy or use them. I also know that when we throw or wash something away that there is no ‘away’; everything ends up somewhere, be it landfill or sewage treatment or eventually the oceans. But it turns out I had a sparkly blind spot!
It got me thinking. Where else am I releasing plastics into the environment without realising? The stuff that my home recycling bin gets shamefully full of is the obvious stuff. But if glitter is a plastic then that can’t be the end of it.
My toenails are currently painted blue. A small piece of varnish chipped off a couple of days ago whilst I was in the shower and I saw it wash down the drain. Varnish. Plastic. Hmm. I can try and stop bits going down the drain I suppose by being more careful with it, not getting it outside the edges of the nails in the first place so it doesn’t wash off my skin, and removing it and binning the paper I removed it with once it threatens to chip… but maybe I should stop using it, or at least see if there’s a truly biodegradable alternative. I now genuinely wonder if there’s plastic in any of my other cosmetics?
My mind wandered back to a conversation with my dad a while back. He’s already switched on to this, and is busy replacing most of his wardrobe with natural fibres. Now I’m thinking of it, that makes sense. How much dust and fluff do our clothes and furnishings give off all the time? If they are made of synthetic fibres, that is more microplastics that we’re releasing into the environment every time we do laundry, empty the vacuum cleaner, or even in tiny quantities just whilst out and about.
And today I’m working on some DIY. I just scrubbed a painted wall I am renovating with a scourer, and the water coming off it contained tiny flecks of white paint and green scourer. I flushed it away… but there is no away, right? Cleaning sponges, cloths and scourers are made of plastics and synthetic fibres too (as is the paint – at least what I’m replacing it with is a less plastic based mineral paint, even if that’s not perfect!), and as they wear, they are losing tiny plastic particles into the water. The same goes for my plastic chopping board and utensils in the kitchen.
My life is full of plastic!!
I know I can’t fix the problem by myself and that my own impact is small compared to the scale of the problem. I also know it may not be that smart to throw away useable items just because of this. But I am thinking about it now. Maybe when it comes to replacing things I’ll think a bit more carefully about what I replace them with. There are alternatives out there, even including eco glitter, as a colleague of mine joyfully shared with me! Maybe I can become more conscious of what I am releasing into our water and soils in future, and take better care over the small things.
Edit: Someone else is talking about this too in this article, which identifies tyre wear and tear on roads, alongside other sources we might not have considered. I’m wondering if we need not only to tackle plastics at source in manufacturing, but also develop new water treatment techniques that somehow remove microplastics before they enter the environment or drinking supply…