Microbead face washes were great for your face, but not so good for the earth. Today, plastic pollution, like climate change, is part of everyday conversation. Plastic is ubiquitous, and the harm to marine animals, wildlife, and humans is well documented. A growing area of research focuses on microplastics, plastics with diameters smaller than 5 mm. Between 1970 and 1980, fewer than 100 published papers even mentioned microplastics. Compare that to the more than 5,000 articles published in 2020 alone. Microplastics are formed when larger pieces of plastics break apart during physical and chemical weathering processes. Plastic designed to be small, like nurdles (i.e., resin pellets that are melted to make plastic products) and microbeads (i.e, tiny rounded plastic beads that are used in cosmetics) are also microplastics.
Small size is part of the problem: Ingestion of microplastics by various mammals, birds, and fish is common, and removal from the environment is challenging. The United Nations reports that there are 51 trillion microplastic particles—500 times more than stars in our galaxy—in oceans and riverways. Beach cleanups and recycling alone will not solve our microplastic problem. What can we do? Solving environmental problems, including plastic pollution, requires a multimodal approach: one that includes laws, data, legislators, and individuals, including you.
Growing awareness of plastic pollution and its associated harms has spurred action at the highest level of the federal government. As with other environmental problems, we can use legislation to curb the amount of plastic released into the environment. In 2015, the federal government enacted the Microbead-Free Waters Act, banning the manufacturing and sale of microbeads (i.e., tiny bits of plastic added to face washes), toothpaste, and other rinse-off personal care products. While not targeting microplastics directly, the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, introduced in February 2020, seeks to: eliminate single-use plastic, a precursor of microplastics, and make plastic producers responsible for post-consumer plastic management (a business principle called extended producer responsibility). States and local jurisdictions like Illinois, California, and Hawaii are also introducing (or have passed) legislation banning plastic bags and other kinds of single-use plastics.
Litigation offers opportunities to stop plastic pollution. Many environmental laws (e.g., the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act) have citizen suit provisions that allow private individuals or groups to file lawsuits to enforce federal environmental laws, regulations, or permits. These provisions have forced plastic producers to pay for and remediate the harm they have caused.
For example, in 2019, the San Antonio Bay Estuary Waterkeeper sued Formosa Plastics Corp for violating its water permits after nurdles showed up in nearby creeks and rivers in coastal Texas. In October 2019, a federal judge ruled against the plastic manufacturer and imposed a $50 million fine. More recently, the Charleston Riverkeeper used citizen suit provisions to sue Frontier Logistics, a packaging company in South Carolina, for nurdles found in regional waterways and beaches.
In addition to citizen suits, plaintiffs have begun to use public nuisance lawsuits to address plastic pollution. In February 2020, Earth Island Institute sued the Coca-Cola Company, Pepsico, Inc., Nestlé USA, Inc., and other companies that use plastic packaging in state court for “creating conditions which constitute a nuisance by causing plastic pollution in California waterways and coasts.”
While legislation and litigation that target plastic producers and manufacturers are critical to halting plastic pollution, individual efforts are needed to bring about meaningful environmental change. As citizen scientists, individuals like you can help collect data about the location and kind of plastic in the environment. The Marine Debris Tracker, the Nurdle Patrol, and the Plastic Control are great organizations in which you can get involved. Using these readily available tools or resources, citizens can monitor waterways, thus discovering accidental spills and exposing illegal discharges. Partnerships between scientists and citizen scientists can help generate data that can influence legal action and steer environmental discussions at the local and national levels. Individuals can reduce the amount of plastic in the environment by altering their behavior. While using canvas bags and forgoing plastic straws might seem insignificant, individual action can create collective change.