The Plastic Trash You Don’t See

Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
San Francisco Bay is contaminated with pollution from billions of tiny plastic particles. These mirocplastics pose a serious threat to water quality, wildlife, and human health. Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Coastal Cleanup Day was last weekend, reminding us that trash—plastic in particular—remains a very visible pollution problem in our local creeks and along the Bay shoreline. But it’s the plastic you don’t immediately see that’s the latest cause for concern. A recent study determined that billions of tiny pieces of plastic currently pollute the Bay, more than any other major water body in the country.

“Microplastic” refers to the tiny plastic particles that escape sewage treatment plants and are discharged into the Bay with treated wastewater. They also flow through city storm drains, which release untreated water into creeks and the Bay. According to the study, which analyzed treated wastewater and water taken directly from the Bay, over half of the plastic particles in these samples are microbeads from personal care products and cosmetics (marketed as skin exfoliants), as well as other tiny fragments of plastic trash. Twenty-seven percent of the microplastics were plastic fibers from synthetic clothing and fishing line. Plastic film and foam particles were also abundant, which come from plastic bags, Styrofoam food ware, cigarette butts, and other products. Not only are microplastics polluting the Bay, the study indicated that fish are consuming them. We also know plastic trash can absorb dangerous chemicals from the water, becoming even more toxic to wildlife.

The problem seems overwhelming, but steps are already being taken to address the sources of these microplastics. Save The Bay supported a bill recently passed by the state legislature to ban microbeads from personal care products in California by 2020, and we are encouraging the Governor to sign it. But you don’t have to wait until 2020—we can all stop using products with microbeads in them immediately. We have also worked hard over the past few years to advocate for plastic bag and Styrofoam food ware bans throughout the Bay Area, and we continue to encourage cities to adopt these policies. Moving forward, our Zero Trash, Zero Excuse campaign is focused on keeping trash out of our storm drain system, and holding our community leaders, agencies, and ourselves accountable for achieving zero stormwater trash by 2022. Keeping microplastic and other trash out of the Bay will require a regional commitment—show yours today by signing our pledge.

UPDATE: Gov. Brown signed the microbead ban into law, which will prohibit products with plastic microbeads from being sold in California by 2020.