Microplastics, microbeads and single-use plastics poisoning sea life and affecting humans, says UN Environment

UNEP/Shawn Heinrichs Trash at a beach in Bali where the UN Environment Programme launched the Clean Seas Campaign.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


Each year, an estimated eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean – equivalent to a full garbage truck every minute dumped into the sea – the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said Monday, drawing attention to the damage it cause and cost-effective switches that can be made.

Between 60 to 90 per cent of the litter that accumulates on shorelines, the surface and the sea floor is made up of plastic.

The most common items are cigarette butts, bags, and food and beverage containers. Consequently, marine litter harms over 800 marine species, 15 of which are endangered. And plastic consumed by marine species enters the human food chain through fish consumption.

Alarmingly, in the last 20 years, the proliferation of microplastics, microbeads and single-use plastics have made this problem even more pronounced.

Most people associate marine plastic pollution with sights of plastic litter along coastlines or floating on sea surface. But microplastics and microbeads pose a hidden challenge; they are out of sight, and therefore out of mind.

Clean Seas Campaign

“What’s in Your Bathroom?”, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) asked on Monday, as part of a campaign to raise awareness on the harm caused by plastics in personal care products and shifts that can be made to reduce plastic footprints.

Microplastics listed on cosmetic ingredients

  • Polyethylene (PE)
  • Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)
  • Nylon
  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
  • Polypropylene (PP)

UNEP launched the Clean Seas Campaign in 2017 to galvanize a global movement tackling the excessive practice of single-use plastics and microbeads.

Now in its second phase, it is shining a light on specific aspects of marine litter, such as plastic pollution generated by the cosmetic industry.

Many consumers are not aware just how much plastic there may be in the personal care items they use daily on their faces and bodies.
From the plastic in packaging to the under-5mm microplastics hidden within the products, including beads or glitter, they are designed to wash down the drain, travel through rivers and end up in the sea.

Microplastics are too small to be filtered out by waste treatment plants and they attract waterborne toxins and bacteria that stick to their surfaces. Because they look like food, they are eaten by fish, amphibians, insect, larvae and marine animals as well as seabirds and other marine life, blocking digestive tracts and causing physical problems.

In addition to endangering marine life, the health implications of microplastics on humans are not yet fully known, but considering their prevalence in clothes, food, water and cosmetics, are expected to be far reaching.
For the next week, UNEP invites everyone to examine products in their bathrooms and  check its Instagram for information on how they can join the campaign.

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