Micro-plastics, plastics, plastic pollution

1 February 2020
This is the followup to an Instagram post about getting rid of my microfibre cleaning cloths. I watched a program on plastic waste hosted by Hugh Fernly-Whittingstall and Anita Rani, produced by BBC1, and it showed the terrible cost of keeping those cloths. It's on Foxtel's Lifestyle Channel in Australia (episode 3 tomorrow at 7.30pm) and on the BBC iPlayer in the UK. If you don't have access to those sites, the first episode is here: DailyMotion.  I hope you watch it if you can but it is the second episode that was mind-blowing for me.  I can't find that one or episode 3 online.

It looks clean but there are plastics in all our oceans and the problem is getting worse.



IN THE UK - that is England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, population 67 million, these are some of the statistics they highlighted:
  • 19.5 billion pieces of single-use plastic in UK homes at any one time.
  • 2.2 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste produced per year.
  • 8 billion single-use water bottles per year.
  • Loose fruit and vegetables are more expensive than fruit and vegetables sold in plastic.
  • Wipes of various kinds (for baby, toddlers, car windscreens, stain removal wipes, leather wipes, teeth wipes (!!), dog ear wipes (!!), antiseptic wipes. 11 billion packs of wipes are bought in the UK per year.
  • 90 per cent of wipes are made of plastic and they contain 84 per cent plastic.
  • 16 tonnes of used wipes were collected in sewerage in Bristol in three days.
I'm highlighting the problem in the UK because that is the information I have.  It's definitely not because the UK is the only country with problems.  We all have them. Both the UK and Australia have sent many tonnes of plastic rubbish to Asia. I'm sure other countries have too.

When you're recycling, there are differences between council rules in each area so you need to go onto your local council's website to find out what is recycled and what isn't.  When you know the recycling rules for your area, stick to them.  There will be plastics that can't be recycled and they will go into landfill, so contact your local MP and ask how the plastic that can't be recycled will be dealt with.

I don't see the need for wipes and I have bought two packs of wipes in my life. One was Waterwipes and we used them in the car during our book tours so we could clean our hands. The other was antiseptic wipes. As soon as I got them home I regretted buying them. I didn't know the extent of the wipes problem and in fact, wipes have two problems. They're packaged in plastic and 90 per cent of wipes on the market are made of plastic! Those wipes are 84 per cent plastic. I think that will surprise most people. There is no mention of plastic at all anywhere on any wipes packaging. Some wipes are disposed of in the bin, but many of them are put in the toilet and flushed away.  The city of Bristol in England collected the wipes that had been disposed of in the toilet and 16 tonnes were collected in three and a half days. That doesn't account for all the wipes disposed of in the bin and sent to landfill.

If we can see there is a huge problem with single-use plastic why do our governments fail to see that too?  Or do they know exactly what we know, and probably much more, but fail to act because it is big business? It would be interesting to find that out from your local MP.  I emailed my MP over the Christmas break asking why the newsletter he sent out, in which he patted himself on the back for all sorts of challenges, programs and funding, didn't mention climate change at all.  I'm still waiting for the reply, if it doesn't come soon, I'll phone him.

Two-thirds of the clothes we buy contain acrylic, which is plastic. The main problem seems to be that every time acrylic fabric, yarn and microfibre cloths are washed,  about 700,000 fibres are shed into the water in a single wash. They end up in the oceans where they cause massive problems.

There is another plastic problem we don't know much about - plastic air pollution. The scientist doing tests on plastic fibres in the wash said to Hugh he would be more worried about plastic air pollution and the plastic falling on our dinner plates!   So Hugh went to meet another scientist who was collecting air samples on top of a building in London.  She was collecting 700 plastic fibres per metres squared every day. Which means that over 2 billion microplastic particles are falling on London every day. They are mainly acrylic and polyester and they come from clothing, sails, awnings etc.

Hugh took measuring units to Bristol and installed them inside two homes. When analysed after a couple of days, they found microplastics, inside normal houses, that had the potential of embedding themselves in lungs. The scientist was surprised by the results and said: "it's urgent to understand the concentration and harm that these things pose."

I said in my IG post that I think we all have to change ourselves. No one else will have the solution to this problem that works for you. I think we all have to work out what our main problems areas are - for example, mine, at the moment, are plastic packaging on food and reducing the amount of plastic I have in my home. I encourage you to think about this and work out how you are affected by plastics, then decide what you'll do about it in your home and workplace.

The problem with plastics won't go away. It is up to us to work out our own solutions in our homes but to come together and share solutions for workplaces, schools and communities.  I hope when we share what we're doing, we support others and we keep a lid on the criticism.  You'll need to do a lot of research because it's only when we have the truth, and not just what we see on social media, that we'll know how to start working on genuine solutions.

Links:
Recycling in my local area  Find information for your area and learn what you can recycle.
What are microplastics?
Tips to Use Less Plastic

37 comments

  1. Interesting! I just watch a show this week on PBS called The Plastics Problem. Raised similar concerns. How do we even begin to get rid of it? It takes an incredibly long time to break down. And it's so hard to avoid in an industrialized society. I've tried to be conscientious regarding packaging, but wow is it difficult. Hard to find many products not packed in plastic or plastic coated cardboard. Even eggs!

    Here's the link to the PBS program if you are interested: https://www.pbs.org/video/the-plastic-problem-7kdvzo/

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    1. Thanks Debbie. I've bookmarked the program and will watch it this afternoon.

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  2. Very frightening Rhonda. Thank you for highlighting such an important issue. I have just spent a week in a private hospital where most of the food was served in single serve plastic. Jelly and custard in separate plastic containers. Even the cereal bowl was disposable plastic. Tea and coffee was served in takeaway cups. It's just everywhere.

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  3. Hi, Rhonda. I have read quite a few articles recently about people who are not waiting/have not waited for governments of any level to make changes but have made changes themselves. I think that is the way forward and imagine if everyone took that approach! I am very interested in watching the episode you've linked to and reading from all the links you've posted. Thanks!

    Meg:)

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  4. Personally I think most of our governments world wide are letting us down. It's not about what is best for our continued existence on this planet or our well-being or anything that truly matters, it is a money driven, let's keep the big businesses/big money happy, popularity contest for the short term, there is no long term plan at all. No one wants to be unpopular or make the hard choices that are needed, it's like they're all still in the school playground wanting to be accepted and hang out with the popular kids.
    You are right in saying it is up to us as individuals to do what we can ourselves in our own homes, when people stop buying the rubbish and refusing to accept things just for convenience then it becomes unmarketable/unprofitable, and only then will it change. I shall step down off my box now, I'm not usually so vocal, but I for one find our future
    at this point in time quite frightening. Kate (Tassie)

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    1. Agreed completely. It is interesting that last night I watched a PBS presentation on the Food and Drug Act here in the U.S. It seems that there has always been support of big business over what scientists tell us is bad for the common plan. In it, it was shown that dangerous chemicals such as borax and formaldehyde were widely used in food production and it took 25 years at least to get them out. A Dr Wylie was responsible for getting it signed by President Roosevelt; and from then on at least we had some protection. It is also interesting that we are back again fighting with such giants as Monsanto. I fear that we just don't learn to accept health over convenience. We have not been good stewards of the earth at all.

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    2. That is true hopflower, and very sad when really we have the ability and the technology to be so much better than we are.

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  5. Hi Rhonda. I have been a regular reader of your blog for some years now, and agree with you on many issues. But I have never commented on any of them until now. I feel so strongly about this issue I just had to comment. I hate microfiber, plastic and synthetic products of any kind. We need to stop producing products made with these materials. I'm all good for recycling plastic, but once a piece of plastic is made it never goes away. So we need to stop producing it. As long as the products, such as wipes, etc are still available to buy people will still buy them. We need to stop making them. Thank you for your article.

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  6. You might be interested in the https://zerowastechef.com/ blog. She has been working to eliminate plastic from her home and life and has a lot of really useful information.

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    1. Thanks Zelda. I had a look and liked what I saw. I'll go back when I have time.

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    2. Zelda, zero waste chef is my 'go to' whenever I have a plastic problem I don't know how to solve - e.g. how to make my own crackers or toothpaste.

      Madeleine

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  7. Clothing would be one huge issue as most IS made from mad made fibres these days. I remember comments being made about polar fleece when it was first on the market and here is current information:Fleece is made from recycled plastic bottles and petroleum and polar fleece is made by forcing liquid plastic through tiny holes. You get polar fleece sheets and pillow cases, microfibre sheets and pillow cases, The Tv, sewing machine, laptop, printer all made from plastic. When one looks around their house it is scary. I like to buy quilting fabric to sew clothes with as it is cotton but i cannot find the right width to make sheets and i will look very hard at what to make tea towels from in the future. Most bath towels are made from cotton and you can tell the ones made from microfibre. 2 interesting things-- Tokyo uses the same amount of 1 use plastic bags in 1 day than New Zealand used to use in a month and while Westernised countries are trying to cut their carbon footprint countries such as China, India and other Countries are still having the muck billowing into the air from their production plants. I saw a programme when plastic was being sent to China for recycling and a lot of it was being burnt. Supermarkets in NZ may have done away with 1 use plastic bags but go around the back of the supermarket and you will see pallet after pallet of plastic wrapped goods waiting to be unpacked. Thank you for the information on the microfibre cloths Rhonda. Can you suggest how we could dispose of them please?

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    1. Karen, my microfibre cloths are now in my general rubbish bin. The pick up is Monday morning and that's the last I'll see of them. Unfortunately, they're going to landfill but I know that if I keep them, they'll be used again. I don't want to send them to the dump but I can't justify keeping them after what I've seen and read. I have a good supply of cotton rags to take their place.

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    2. I think I saw that same television programme, too. It was a real eye-opener. And very frightening.

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    3. Karen, I was shocked when I went to a supermarket late one night and saw a pallet of tinned tomatoes wrapped around and around in plastic. The problem is actually much deeper than we realise. I am going more and more towards stopping the plastic and other packaging at the source - the manufacturer. I write letters about any packaging I am not happy with, including the packaging mail-ordered parcels are sent in. Some online stores are trying really hard now to instigate changes in this area.

      As for the tomato issue, we have bought about 120 old Vacola jars and are growing our own tomatoes to bottle and make pasta with.

      Madeleine

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    4. Ooops i made one mistake in my comment--- Tokyo used the same amount of 1 use plastic bags in 1 day as NZ did in 1 YEAR-- not 1 month. Thanks oyu Rhonda for telling me you have sent your microfibre cloths to the dump. You are right that it is not the best option but they will not be getting used over and over. Anonymous-- congratulations that you have decided to bottle your own grown tomatoes.

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  8. We rely so heavily on plastic in modern life. I will keep plastic containers that I have but I am trying to avoid single use plastics such as cling film, plastic packaging, disposable coffee cups. Even teabags have a percentage of plastic in them so maybe I should also change to loose tea leaves. I take small net bags to the greengrocers or supermarket for fruit and veg. Supermarkets are at last beginning to make small changes but this is a huge problem that requires governmental action worldwide.

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  9. Just watching the history of coca cola. interesting what was old is new again- the future of coca cola may be soda fountains to limit the use of plastics in their brand. great that big companies are looking for solutions. but as pointed out by the BBC series War on Waste and the Australian series, the consumer has increasing power. I still use plastic bags on occasions, my favourite use is a wet washer in plastic bag. the bag gets used for months- some things are difficult to find a replacement. great comments above- Erin

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  10. I have been watching this program. Knew about microfibre particles shedding into water long ago but the wipes were a mind-blowing revelation. I felt so guilty as I have used baby wipes. Having children with very sensitive skins meant that I have wiped their little bottoms with them.

    However, I choose to wear natural fibres as much as I can. Cotton and occasionally linen are my choices. Since animals are slaughtered I wear leather shoes. Even expensive shoes come with synthetic insoles and linings.

    It is all a catch 22.

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    1. Don't feel guilty about using wipes, Suzan. This is a learning process for all of us. When we know better, we do better.

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  11. I'll admit I just purchased some microfiber sheets. I am outfitting two beds at the cabin and needed bedding (and a change so that I can wash in between at home and not worrying about forgetting the stuff ... 4 hours away) They are not my favorite at all and I don't use them at home. But...cash isn't thick enough right now for me to do all of it. I'll replace them when I can. On a better note, since they are use infrequently, they will be washed infrequently lol.

    However, I did buy a bunch of microfiber cloths to use at home. Being single, I really don't have a ton of worn out anything to use as rags. I replaced those that I was using in the kitchen with sackcloth as well as towels I sewed from flannel and homespun (which was purchased new from the fabric store.) The original flannel/homespun towels I sewed are just now fading after several years of use.

    I finally gave up on the microfiber cloths when I realized that they were leaving stuff behind on my mirrors....yes tiny little fibers. I've donated those to my work where we have a pile that we use for really gross projects.

    I went out and found some sort of cotton fabric that I have in the pile to make into cleaning cloths to replace them. I don't have any spare sheets here either right now.

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  12. I never took the leap to microfiber. As someone with formal textile education, I was never convinced that a glorified polyester would clean well. I am a knitter and crocheter. I have used a lot of acrylic and acrylic blends. This seems that it may be unhealthy which is a powerful motivator. Thanks for the education Rhonda!

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  13. wow! I was aware of the problem of single use plastic containers but you have alerted me that the problem is so much bigger. Thank you

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  14. I didn't know that about acrylic yarn. Thanks for the information. I knit with wool, alpaca, and silk. I do have a few crocheted acrylic blankets, but they are 30 years old. I buy my produce at our co-op, so there are no plastic bags. Like you, I grow a lot of citrus. The compost pile takes care of a lot of these issues. Your post made me feel better; I have never bought wipes. Plastic bags used to be my weakness, but now that problem is solved. Awareness is the first step to change.

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  15. Many countries have sites showing products with mircobeads. When I have to buy food as bread in plastic I reuse the bags.Just a rinse out like our parents or grandmothers did.I know it is still plastic but at least it is being used many times.

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  16. Oh wow!the figures are staggering.Can't watch Hugh but will some of those other links. I have a couple of polo fleece tops I wear dog walking and gardening I purchased from an op shop. Maybe saving them from landfill to finish their life out wasn't a good move after All! Sadly they are lightweight but really warm and wash and dry so well. I guess we better have an audit and bury the culprits! It is hard to not feel guilty even though we can't go back, we just have to keep doing our best together.

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  17. Thanks for the links, Rhonda. Some of this was news to me - eg the wet wipes containing plastic. I did use wipes for a little while with my first baby but luckily was too poor to continue! I ended up using the large wet wipe box and buying 10 cheap face washers to make my own wipes. I put water and a few drops of lavender oil into a bowl, soaked the cloths in the water and then folded them in half and stored them in the box. These simply went into the nappy bucket for washing.

    The other place I see new mums using wipes is for meal clean up. Again, the problem is easily solved by just keeping a couple of washers for this purpose, wetting them and wiping face and hands. You can throw a small lunch box with a wet washer in it into your day bag if you will be feeding your toddler when you are out. It sounds so obvious but as there is no advertising showing this, only ads showing disposable products, they become completely normalised.

    Madeleine

    I was the first one in my circle to become a mother 20 years ago and actually used tissues in the beginning at meal times! I simply didn't know any better because I had never seen a mother feeding her baby!

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  18. WOW just WOW!

    This information is shocking to read and I didn't know about most of it. I have been using baby wipes for different reasons, but never flush them. I carry a packet in my bag to wipe hands, shopping trolleys etc when out and about. BUT...I am going to make my own wipes from now on. I didn't realise they contained plastic just like the microfibre cloths and our clothing. I need to do my own research like you suggest.

    Thank you so much Rhonda for raising awareness. I am pretty sure I am not alone with my ignorance to what actually contains these plastics. Now I will act to correct my behavior and spread the word.

    xTania

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  19. I can't understand the current obsession for wipes for everything, in the 50's when I was a child there was none of that, nothing that you couldn't clean up with a good old fashioned dishcloth or face flannel. Or as somebody else said, a tissue. I fear that the plastic situation isn't going to get any better, particularly as everyone is going vegetarian or vegan so are 'unable' to use animal fibres any more. Without animal manure the soil will become depleted. What next I wonder, cruelty to plants? Soon we'll not be able to eat or wear anything!

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    1. I agree with you about the wipes. I think we could easily get rid of wipes and get back to a simple cotton cloth or washer and a bit of water. It would be better for the environment and the budget. However, I don't think you can blame vegetarians and vegans for making the "plastic situation" worse. I don't think the Western diet should be focused on animal protein which brings with it other issues with methane and water usage.

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    2. Sue, many vegetarians still wear leather shoes (I do) as we don't want to see any part of the animal that has lost it's life wasted. Many of us have also been avoiding plastic bags etc since the 80s! I have never bought the frozen veg you mention, I grow my own, again to avoid plastic and all of the emissions associated with mass production and storage of frozen veg.
      Madeleine

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  20. And another thought...all those frozen food bags, you know, the ones for peas, beans, broccoli etc. None of them are recyclable, they really need to start looking at frozen foot bagging as well. At the moment I wash mine and keep them as packaging for home-made freezer dishes but even my recycle drawer is getting full up with them now and the supermarkets don't take them back like they do plastic bags.

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  21. Rhonda I have been aware of the plastic concerns and changing my habits here for some years now. Small things done daily. That is how we have to start because obviously the bigger powers that be have turned their heads.
    Beeswax wraps, glass jars, and 100% cotton dish clothes have taken the place of cling wrap, plastic storage and microcloth.
    No plastic that makes its way into this house is a one use, except meat . I haven't figured how to sort that yet. I have a storage spot and make sure plastic and paper wrapping is used again and again.
    Bread tags and bottle tops are given to local shop which sends them to be recycled into prothesis for children.

    People seem to believe that cleanliness, high chemical use and Whiteness matches ''goodness''. It doesn't, it matches using a semi trailer to kill a bug. Not Necessary.

    People need to be aware that a lot of the cleaning products have micro plastics in them including toiletries . That is without taking into account the plastic bottles this stuff comes in. We use sunlight soap in bar form, in a shaker to wash dishes and in liquid form using R's recipe for laundry gloop. It comes in a cardboard box and we are as clean as anyone else.
    We have a new grandchild on the way. The young Mum is very Eco aware and has been always. The babies nappies are cloth and the baby wipes are cloth. As was the older brothers. So also good recyling. Daughter would NEVER use wipes with chemicals on her precious off spring.
    Of course they have now found that over cleanliness is responsible for many of the allergies and illnesses we currently have . Grandmas old adage of "eat a peck of dirt" seems to be true.
    Many years ago Landline on our ABC had a segment on the cost of wipes to rate payers as our sewerage pipes and systems and sewerage farms clogged up with these horrible things. I always wondered why mainstream news outlets never picked the story up.
    We all need have a really good think about what we can do individually and remember to use what we already have in our homes as our first thing. No need to replace all our tupperware with pyrex as the tupperware won't just disappear.
    Use what we have to it's FULL POTENTIAL would really help by making less rubbish in the first instance.

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    1. With the meat issue, you could take a tupperwear box to your local butcher. Ours will pack various meats straight into a box. If you shop for meat every two or three days, you could take the meat straight from the box in the fridge without further repacking.

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  22. This is a huge problem. We are surrounded of plastic and most people have grown up with it. I am so old that I, grown up in the countryside, have not. Plastic was in use when I was born of course, but you didn't buy things you didn't need and new items came later to us. When my mother baked bread she had the dough in a large wooden trough. When the dough was ready she shuffeld the dough to one end of the trough and made the breads ready in the other. The plastic items slowly arrived in the homes of course, but I can't remember plastic buckets at home when I moved out. We managed, but to day many wouldn't know how to.

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  23. thanks for the link to that show. Plastic is such a problem and as you say we just aren't aware of the products that contain it. Its so hard to avoid it these days.

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  24. part of the series is also on youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgUDU-_iJU4

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