Sneaky plastics hiding in plain sight

29 June 2022

#PlasticFreeJuly Household items that seem benign are some of the most common sources of microplastics, according to a University of Canterbury PhD student.

  • Helena Ruffell
Sustainable Development Goals 12 - Responsible consumption and production

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12 - Responsible Consumption and Production

Clothing and soft furnishings, glitter, kitchen sponges, nail polish, sunscreen, mascara, and lipsticks are bursting with what Helena Ruffell calls ‘sneaky plastics.’

Ruffell began researching microplastics – plastic particles smaller than 5mm – for her master’s project by investigating the levels and types going into and out of wastewater treatment plants. She is now researching how microplastics impact the health and function of New Zealand soils, and how they get into the soils in the first place.

“Unfortunately, microplastics are everywhere, including in places you wouldn’t expect. I’ve found microplastics in every single sample I’ve looked at. When we think of plastic, we tend to think of a rigid shiny product like a drink bottle. A lot of the time we don’t realise that microplastics are lurking in a myriad of other everyday items,” Ruffell says.

“For instance, I hadn’t realised that glitter is made from plastic. And we all know how incredibly hard it is to get rid of it and how easily it can rub off toys, clothing, art work, makeup, nail polish and remain on clothing, carpets and other surfaces for a long time. Makeup, nail polishes and glitter paints for hair and body are all washed down the drain during hand washing and showers or baths and into the wastewater treatment plants, and are eventually released into the environment.

“A lot of our clothing and soft furnishings, for example blankets, cushions, curtains, and carpet, are actually made of plastic. These synthetics all continually shed microfibres and this is accelerated when we wash them. Then the water from the washing machine goes down the drain and eventually out into the environment.”

The quantity of microplastics in each wastewater sample took Helena by surprise.

“I thought the likelihood of finding any plastics in the wastewater treatment plants would be very low because of the sheer volume of water that’s there. I was wrong. Some samples are so full of microplastics it looks like someone sprinkled hundred and thousands over them.

“And I’m continuing to find lots of microbeads even though they were banned for sale in personal care products in 2018. But they are clearly still being used or are found in other products.”

As part of her PhD research, Ruffell is collecting samples of different soils and biowastes that are commonly applied onto soils and may be sources of microplastics – for instance, compost, biosolids (dried sewage sludge) and pasture irrigated with treated municipal effluent.

“I’m identifying how many microplastics are present in each sample type, and what kinds of plastic polymers are present, such as polyester, acrylic, polypropylene, or nylon. I am also investigating if there are any impacts of different kinds of plastics on soil health and plant growth,” Ruffell says.

Supervisor Professor Sally Gaw says Ruffell’s project is important as it highlights how everyday products contribute to microplastic pollution and identifies changes we can all easily make.

Ruffell’s PhD work is part of the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) funded Endeavour Research Programme: Aotearoa Impacts and Mitigation of Microplastics (AIM2) led by the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), and her master’s research was funded by ESR and the Brian Mason Trust.

What can you do to combat sneaky plastics?

  • Replace plastic kitchen sponges with a cotton cloth, wooden or sisal dish brush
  • Wash clothes less frequently or spot wash
  • When buying new items, choose natural fibres for clothes, carpets and blankets where possible
  • Cut down on glitter
  • Check makeup for microplastics
  • Ask companies if they use microbeads in products such as sunscreen and cleaning liquids.

Media contact:

  • Email: Ph: (03) 369 3631 or 027 503 0168

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