February 27, 2017

Ocean Microplastic and Your Car

It used to be that the best facial scrub is a home-made facial scrub with ingredients that come out of your pantry, like sugar, sunflower or coconut oil, and some antiseptic like a drop or two of tea tree oil, lavender oil or that "Thieves" blend: everything biodegradable, nothing toxic.

Photo by Inkwina

That way, when you flush it down the sink, you don't contribute to ocean plastic which is so bad for marine life (and the people who like to eat it), because your nice home-made facial scrub doesn't contain plastic microbeads.

But now you can forget about all that. Because industrial facial scrub containing microbeads are now banned, thank goodness. So now you only need to be mindful of glitter in your makeup, and not driving too much.

Wait. What's driving got to do with microplastic?

The answer: more than facial scrub. A team of Norwegian researchers at Mepex Consult AS went scooping up plastics from the sea and traced it back to their origin. The research is written up in a long report that includes things like toxicity of each class of plastic and recommendations for reducing the flow of microplastics into our oceans.

It turns out your industrial, microbead-laden facial scrub (which is now banned) is the least of the problems with microplastics! Lint that comes off your synthetic clothing is a far larger problem, synthetic paints that peel off your front door and siding is an even larger problem.

But apparently - at least in a developed country like Norway - nothing contributes to ocean microplastic so much as particles worn off the tires of cars and trucks. This dwarfs the contribution from cosmetic products.

By Per Erik Schulze, data from Mepex

While a tire looks like a shell of rubber, it is a lot more complicated than that: containing synthetic (meaning plastic) as well as steel fibers for reinforcement, and layers of structured rubber, but natural and synthetic, all engineered to get the desired safety and road performance.

Even the outer layer, the tread, that gives you grip on the road surface and helps you go around corners at reasonable speed, is generally a combination of rubbers - not all of them natural.

That outer layer is designed to wear down with use. You know how you need to keep an eye on the treads: if they are no longer deep enough, you need to replaced your tires. Those bits that wear off your tires get swept into the storm drains, through the waterways - and into the sea.

Here is why this spells trouble for marine life: Car tires are not the cleanest, chemically speaking. Look at the controversy around artificial turf, where plastic grass is held up by "crumb rubber" - basically finely shredded used car tires. In fact, because of the health risks associated with crumb rubber, some European countries have gone back to good old grass for their playing fields.

The Norwegian report suggests a rigorous regime of street cleaning: the idea is to vacuum up the microplastic worn off car tires before the next rain sweeps it into the storm drain.

That may be a good idea in a country that vacuums its roads on a regular basis. The small US town where I live has a hard time even clearing leaves from the streets in the fall, and I regularly see broken glass lying on the street for weeks - because it's too heavy to be swept away by rainwater.

What can I say? If you've been worried about plastic microbeads in your beauty products, you need to be super worried about microbits of synthetic rubber worn off your car tires. Avoid driving whenever you can. If you must, make those miles count: by bundling your errands, by sharing your car with a few friends. Trains don't have rubber tires (and don't get stuck in traffic). Your bicycle has tires but they don't suffer nearly the wear and tear that your car tires do. Bonus: riding your bike prevents the formation of that spare tire around your middle!



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3. What to Do About Our Choked Roads?


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