Tiny elephants in the room: attitudes to microplastics and the environment

microbeads in cosmetics Humans have been drastically altering our environments for millennia. The bare, bleak hills of Dartmoor in the southwest of England were heavily forested ten thousand years ago, before Stone Age inhabitants started clearing trees to boost hunting and farming. Worldwide deforestation has accelerated in the industrial era, to the point where ongoing destruction of habitats like the Amazon jungle has become proverbial.

Quips about newspaper supplements or lecture handouts being a “waste of the rainforest” have been around for decades, and the belief that saving trees is a Good Thing is widespread, if often rather sketchy on details. What sort of trees should we save? Where? Is all wood/paper/cardboard production necessarily bad for the planet? More generally, do our individual recycling efforts make a meaningful difference, particularly in the face of political sluggishness – and even backtracking – on huge international problems like climate change?

In an era where potential threats to the global environment from human behaviour seem well beyond individual control, how is public consciousness swayed towards meaningful collective action? Exploring attitudes to pollutants such as plastic microbeads, Alison Anderson, Sabine Pahl and colleagues at Plymouth University highlight the power of visual imagery. Showing how unnatural the pollutants within everyday products can look in their raw form may have an impact on consumers’ later purchasing decisions.

There is increasing awareness of the huge volume of plastics in the oceans and their impact on marine life, notably since the controversial identification of the “Great Pacific garbage patch”. Conspicuous rubbish floating on the sea’s surface or washed up on shorelines may not, however, be the most critical threat to the stability of the ecosystem. Recent studies show that tiny particles of plastic persist in the oceans after larger debris has broken down and may be eaten by small animals on the bottom links of the food chain. The consequences for sea-life and for human health are as yet uncertain, but there is evidence that microplastics concentrate pollutants and may disrupt feeding behaviour.

Although most oceanic microplastics originate from the degeneration of larger items of rubbish, such as carrier bags, plastic microbeads are manufactured specifically for use in cosmetic products, including facial scrubs. In the UK alone, 680 tonnes of microbeads are estimated to be used annually, entering rivers and ultimately the sea after being flushed down bathroom plughole. This is a fraction of overall plastic pollution, but it’s striking for being eminently avoidable. We all need bags of some description for bringing in our shopping and carrying out our rubbish, but plastic microbeads are unnecessary, even if you’re committed to a strict daily exfoliation regime.

Using focus group methods, Sabine Pahl and colleagues assessed attitudes to facial scrubs amongst trainee beauticians and hairdressers, as well as university students and groups of environmentalists active in marine campaigns. After discussion of how facial scrubs work, they were given samples of microbeads in transparent jars, illustrating how many particles there are in each product (see picture).

microbeads cosmetics large picture

Strong reactions to the visual evidence were common. One beautician said: “Is that how much plastic would be in one bottle? Oh my God, that’s like almost half of it.” Several participants commented on the unnaturalness of the products: “I just don’t think it’s very good for your skin if you’re putting… I don’t know, just seems a bit fake.” Such responses are striking when so many beauty products emphasise naturalness as part of their appeal, and “natural” biodegradable alternatives are available for exfoliating products.

Environmentally-friendly alternatives cost more, however, and it is reasonable to wonder whether powerful visual demonstrations such as these have a lasting impact on consumer behaviour. Although advocates for free-market capitalism claim that change can effectively be driven by choices at the checkout, household budgets are increasingly stretched and the decisions of even environmentally-concerned customers may be governed by more local concerns: “People often report something like a ‘finite pool of worry’ – providing for oneself and one’s family can effectively deflect attention from issues that seem important, but less immediate,” says Dr Pahl. “Furthermore, very high-profile global issues, such as war and its consequences, can push environmental concerns off the personal agenda.” By contrast, the journey of minute pieces of plastic into the deep oceans can seem remote. Mixing metaphors, one environmentalist participant said, “This is like the elephant in the room because it’s so tiny people don’t know or notice.”

Focus groups can illuminate how environmental attitudes develop, but researchers know that multiple methods are essential to understanding longer-term belief development and ultimately behaviour change. In particular, it’s critical to track how attitudes expressed in the lab relate to choices in the shops. As the British EU referendum and recent elections have shown, survey opinions are not always reliable indicators of subsequent actions.

No-one can doubt the transformative impact of human society on the planet, but harnessing our collective will to mitigate the worst effects of our lifestyles is an ongoing challenge. Without combined effort, though, it’s not just remote ecosystems that will be affected:  we’ve already seen that relentless exploitation of natural resources can come back to haunt us. After the trees were stripped from those Dartmoor hills, soils finally became too acidic for farming and Bronze Age communities retreated to the lowlands, leaving only stones to show us that their civilization was ever there.


The research project of Alison Anderson, Sabine Pahl et al. was supported by the Sustainable Earth Institute at Plymouth University.



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