Sparked by the government announcement of a new law banning the use of plastic microbeads in certain consumer products, staff and students from Cornwall College Newquay have been reflecting on their ongoing research and conservation efforts around the effects of microplastics on the marine environment.
Microbeads are tiny solid particles made from petrochemical plastics that are commonly used in exfoliating personal care products, toothpastes and in biomedical and health-science research. Microbeads can cause plastic particle water pollution and pose an environmental hazard for aquatic animals in freshwater and ocean water.
Former student Chris Weston studied a BSc Honours Degree in Applied Zoology with Cornwall College and chose to investigate Microplastics for his final honour project. Chris said: “My view on the government’s plan to ban certain microplastic containing products is on the whole positive; it’s great that the problem is being tackled at national government level. However, it is also important to ensure they follow up on their promise to ban microbeads but also carry out more research into microfibre pollution from clothing and look into oceanic sources such as fishing gear fibres, which I found so many of in my degree study!
“It’s important for the population to embrace this decision for the health of the UK’s seas, and is a huge step forward for so many people to sign a petition against the use of microplastics. A better scientific understanding of how microplastics can affect ecosystems and the food we eat is essential for the general population to grasp and bear in mind when making future political decisions. My advice for people would be generally to reduce the amount of plastic you use day-to-day. Avoiding products containing microplastics is a great start, but reducing plastic use generally is also important. Plastic packaging, bags and the like will all break down to become microplastics if they find their way into watercourses, so try to reduce use of these products and instead use and reuse sustainable packaging!”
Located on Wildflower Lane, Cornwall College Newquay offers degree programmes specialising in Zoology, Surf Science and Marine Conservation. Several zoology and marine conservation students from the College have, in recent years, chosen to focus their honours project on the subject of microplastics. The topics covered include microplastics and their association with plankton, residence in sediment and ingestion in blue mussels.
For Chris, the passion for eliminating microplastics stems from his fascination for all things marine. He continues: “I’m drawn to the marine environment because it’s an area to explore for me, mostly surfing and wild swimming, but it’s also an important area to study as its massively important for supporting human populations. The ocean’s act as a regulator for the planet, ecosystems in the marine environment produce the majority of the human population’s protein and the seas also play a huge role in regulating our climate and keeping this planet comfortable! So to me, to not understand the marine environment more thoroughly and try and protect it would be crazy!” Is the issue of microbeads linked to a lack of awareness among the general public?
Cornwall College alumnus Charlotte Rothwell, who also studied a degree in Applied Zoology, said: “I think the government’s recent decisions concerning microbeads is a step in the right direction but I think they should stop trying to focus on products such as exfoliators as this seems to limit the ban to beauty products whereas a lot of other products, such as cleaning products, contains microbeads. I think the public support behind the petitions to ban microbeads was surprising as I didn’t think that many people would support the ban, but I also think maybe people don’t fully understand what they are signing and how it really affects the environment – for example they may sign the petition but then still go out and buy products containing microbeads. I think petitions that are put up concerning microbeads and the like should have more information about the effects of the problem and this may subconsciously educate people more.
“For members of the public who are not aware of the dangers, I would say microplastics are not only harmful to fish but they can contain chemicals which can leach into fish and accumulate up the food chain, producing a bioload of chemicals that if ingested by humans can cause a multitude of health complaints including damage to the hormone systems and the systems in the body it controls. Products that contains microbeads often contain more chemicals, whereas products that have found alternatives to microbeads are often more environmentally conscious and more natural.
“So not only would using products with microbead alternatives alleviate the problem but it may also benefit water quality overall with less chemicals being discharged.
“I am drawn to study the marine environment as I just think it’s wonderful. Studying at Cornwall College Newquay put me in a great location close to the water which gave the college a more relaxed atmosphere. Everyone in Newquay seemed very likeminded which I think mostly came down to the location as people move to the sea to enjoy it. The lecturers are also all really passionate about what they do which makes you excited to study.”