United Nations Environment Programme
Photo: Shutterstock
17 Feb 2022 Story Oceans & seas

Inside the Clean Seas campaign against microplastics

Photo: Shutterstock / 17 Feb 2022

From the deepest points of the ocean to the food and water we consume, microplastics are a growing threat to human and planetary health.

These tiny plastic particles are present in everyday items, including cigarettes, clothing and cosmetics. United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) research shows that continuous use of some of these products increases microplastics’ accumulation in the environment.

Microplastics, which can be up to five millimetres in diameter, enter the ocean from marine plastic litter breaking down, run-off from plumbing, leakage from production facilities and other sources.

When ingested by marine life such as birds, fish, mammals and plants, microplastics have both toxic and mechanical effects, leading to issues including reduced food intake, suffocation, behavioral changes and genetic alteration.

In addition to entering the food chain through seafood, people can inhale microplastics from the air, ingest them from water and absorb them through the skin. Microplastics have been found in various human organs, and even in the placenta of newborn babies.

UNEP’s 2021 report From Pollution to Solution warns that chemicals in microplastics “are associated with serious health impacts, especially in women”. These can include changes to human genetics, brain development and respiration rates, among other health issues.

“The impacts of hazardous chemicals and microplastics on the physiology of both humans and marine organisms is still nascent and must be prioritized and accelerated in this Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development,” says Leticia Carvalho, Head of the Marine and Freshwater Branch at UNEP.

“However, action limiting their spread and prevalence will undoubtedly be beneficial to our long-term health and the well-being of marine ecosystems and beyond,” she added.

For UNEP’s Clean Seas campaign, highlighting this issue is critical. Ahead of the resumed session of the UN Environmental Assembly (UNEA 5.2) from 28 February to 2 March in Nairobi, Kenya, Clean Seas is taking aim at microplastics to guide safe consumer behaviour, drive policy change and safeguard the environment.

Cigarette butts discarded on the beach
Cigarette butts release microplastics that impact ecosystems’ health and services. Photo: Unsplash / Brian Yurasitis

The impacts of hazardous chemicals and microplastics on the physiology of both humans and marine organisms is still nascent and must be prioritized and accelerated in this Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.

Leticia Carvalho, Head of the Marine and Freshwater Branch at UNEP

Cigarette filters

Microplastics known as cellulose acetate fibres comprise the majority of cigarette filters. With six trillion cigarettes consumed by one billion smokers annually, these fibres reach every corner of the world. Cigarette butts are the most common plastic litter on beaches, making marine ecosystems highly susceptible to microplastic leakages.

When they break down, cigarettes release microplastics, heavy metals and many other chemicals that impact ecosystems’ health and services.

Clean Seas’ new partnership with the Secretariat of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) aims to catalyse change on the consumer, policymaker and business levels. By leveraging WHO FCTC’s expertise, Clean Seas encourages the development of regulatory strategies that address the impact of cigarettes on human health and resource-intensive production.

Woman carries clean clothes
Experts recommend re-wearing clothes more often and washing them less often. Photo: Unsplash / Dan Gold

Clothing and textiles

Plastics – including polyester, acrylic and nylon – comprise approximately 60 per cent of all clothing material. Due to abrasion, clothing and textiles with these materials shed microplastics known as microfibres when washed or worn. According to a 2020 UNEP report that maps the global textile value chain, around 9 per cent of annual microplastic losses to the ocean come from clothes and other textiles.

To reduce these losses, experts recommend re-wearing clothes more often and washing them less often. When purchasing new outfits, opting for sustainably sourced natural materials can decrease or eliminate the threat of microplastic leakage – though doing so may come with other environmental trade-offs.

In the long term, UNEP and other UN agencies participating in the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion will continue to drive coordinated action in the industry. They will also campaign for government action to transition towards a sustainable and circular textile value chain with minimal microplastics. UNEP is working on a roadmap that highlights key actions stakeholders can take, as well as guidance for improving communication measures to drive behavioural change.

Other organizations, such as the Plastic Soup Foundation, are also contributing to reducing microplastics’ ubiquity.

“Consumers deserve to buy clothes that last longer than a few months, and clothes should be designed in that way,” says Laura Díaz Sánchez, Plastic Soup Foundation’s Microfiber Campaigner. “[Clothes] should be durable and not harm the environment as well as our health.”

According to Elisa Tonda, UNEP’s Head of the Consumption and Production Unit, engaging all stakeholders is necessary to shift the textile industry towards circularity and to address microplastics releases from textiles.

“Policymakers need to implement stronger governance and policies, as well as create a policy environment which incentivizes the design of sustainable fabrics and clothing and promotes a more standardized approach to the determination of releases from different textile products and suitable alternatives,” says Tonda.

“Brands should strengthen their efforts in designing sustainable clothing and take responsibility for their products at end-of-life,” she adds. “These initiatives should be coupled with actions from consumer groups, NGOs, and international organizations to raise awareness and inform consumers, enabling them to engage more closely with brands to take action, as well as calling for regulatory actions from governments.”

Cosmetic bottles
Plastic particles from cosmetics can be absorbed into the skin or directly ingested. Photo: Unsplash pmv chamara 

Cosmetics

Cosmetics and personal care products are other staples of grooming routines that can be loaded with microplastics. These products often contain primary microplastics, which are intentionally manufactured and added, often to provide texture - from hand sanitizer and soap to toothpaste and deodorant.

Plastic particles from these products can be absorbed into the skin or, in the case of products like lipstick or lip balm, directly ingested. Microplastics that remain on the skin are eventually washed down the drain and could make their way to the ocean.

According to UNEP’s Global Chemicals Outlook II report, significant amounts of microplastics from cosmetics and other sources are more likely to enter waterways in areas with inadequate wastewater treatment facilities.

The report notes that some exfoliating agents contain more than 10 per cent microbeads - a type of primary microplastic. Furthermore, in a recent study, the Plastic Soup Foundation’s Beat the Microbead campaign found that 83 per cent of 138 sanitizer and hand gel brands contained microplastics.

Reducing use, purchasing products with minimal packaging and examining ingredient lists are a few ways consumers can limit their potential exposure to microplastics, according to Madhuri Prabhakar, the foundation’s Microplastics Campaigner.

Clean Seas’ interactive “What's in your bathroom?” project showcases the prevalence of plastic in common personal care products to encourage consumers to opt for environmentally friendly alternatives.

Businesses and manufacturers also have a responsibility to decrease primary microplastic use. Meaningfully addressing the issue requires action beginning from the product design phase, according to UNEP’s Assessment Report on Issues of Concern.

Prabhakar adds that generating a “future-proof definition for microplastics,” will be essential in lobbying governments and businesses for change and potential bans or restrictions.

Turning the tide

Through this new focus, Clean Seas aims to drive change for consumers, policymakers and businesses alike.

Its partnerships with various organizations and businesses can encourage lifestyle and industry changes and lead to greater impetus for essential research. It can also bolster our limited knowledge of microplastics’ true impacts on human health and help to identify the best paths forward.

Given their pervasiveness in everyday household items, finding answers to microplastics’ complex threats is a critical and pressing challenge.

Countries and businesses can join the Clean Seas campaign, as well as the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment to make ambitious pledges and commitments to combat all aspects of marine litter and plastic pollution. Individuals can also take the Clean Seas pledge to reduce their plastic footprint. Together, we can make the changes necessary to reduce the impacts of plastics and microplastics on environmental and human health.

 

UNEP’s Clean Seas campaign is the biggest, most powerful global coalition devoted to ending marine plastic pollution. It connects and rallies individuals, civil society groups, industry and governments to catalyse change and transform habits, practices, standards and policies around the globe to dramatically reduce marine litter and its negative impacts.

The World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is the first global public health treaty and is one of the most rapidly and widely embraced treaties in United Nations history. It was developed in response to the globalization of the tobacco epidemic and is an evidence-based treaty that reaffirms the right of all people to the highest standard of health.

The UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion is an initiative of UN agencies, including UNEP, and allied organizations designed to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals through coordinated action in the fashion sector. Specifically, the alliance supports coordination between UN bodies working in fashion and promoting projects and policies.

UNEP and the Ellen McArthur Foundation co-lead the Global Commitment, establishing a shared vision of a circular economy for plastics. It has 500 signatories – including plastics producers, financial institutions and governments – who have committed to ambitious 2025 targets to reach circularity.

UNEP’s Global Partnership on Marine Litter is a multi-stakeholder partnership that brings together all actors working to prevent marine litter and plastic pollution. UNEP is developing a Digital Platform to share knowledge and experience and catalyse action.

Nature for Human and Ecosystem Health is one of the key themes of the resumed session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA5.2) to be held from 28 February to 2 March 2022. UNEA is the world’s highest environmental decision-making body. Through its resolutions and calls to action, the Assembly provides leadership and catalyzes intergovernmental action on the environment.