Q&As / Jun 2021

UNDERSTANDING MICROPLASTICS POLLUTION

Understanding Microplastics Pollution

Dr Jennifer Brandon helps us understand the impact that microplastics can have on the environment. This is the second in our series of Q&As with sustainability experts and advocates in their various areas. We sat down with special guest Dr. Jennifer Brandon to learn more about the field of microplastics pollution.

Q. Tell us more about you! How did you first get interested in the field of microplastics pollution? 

I was always a tree-hugger — I started a recycling club in kindergarten! — but I didn't really know that saving the earth could be a job; I thought that was more of a lifestyle. When I was in college, I started becoming fascinated with ecology and marine biology, but then one day I was reading People Magazine and I saw a short article about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I was shocked! I couldn't believe that my trash was getting all the way out to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I became obsessed with reading about it and telling everyone I knew about it, and from then on, I've been passionate about solving our plastic pollution problem. 

Q. What should consumers know about what happens to plastic when it gets into the ocean?

Consumers need to know that their plastic can actually last forever in the ocean. It doesn't dissolve or disappear. It may break down in the sun and saltwater into tiny pieces called microplastics, but they are still fundamentally plastic. When plastic enters the ecosystem, it can entangle or cut animals, especially if it is rope or nets from fishing. It can be ingested by animals, and it can then harm them as they attempt to pass it through their digestive tract. Or it can get stuck in their stomachs, leading them to always feel artificially full, and thus becoming malnourished. Or the chemicals within plastics can leach out, causing animals many harmful health effects as they ingest plastic and live on or near plastics.

Q. What else has been surprising to you in your research?

What has been really surprising to me is just how small most marine plastics really are. Over 90% of the plastics in the ocean are considered microplastics (smaller than 5 mm). These tiny plastics are even more harmful than their larger counterparts because they are harder to clean up but much easier to eat and enter the food chain. It also really surprised me when we started to learn that a lot of these microplastics were actually microfibers that were shedding off of our clothing in the wash. As we wear more and more synthetic clothing, it is shedding more and more microfibers, that are too small to get filtered out at the wastewater treatment plant and are washing right into the ocean. These microfibers can get eaten by marine organisms and have serious health effects. 

Q. You must talk to a lot of scientists, what have been some interesting developments or research in your space that you've been excited to learn about?

The field of marine microplastics is exploding! There are so many scientists working in the space now. It is really exciting. What has been exciting, but challenging, lately to learn about is the fact that scientists are finding microplastics almost everywhere they look for them. It's no longer just an ocean issue. We are finding them in rivers, icebergs, the air, the wind, soil, in our food, in remote lakes far from human civilization, you name it. It really has become a global phenomenon. 
 

Dr. Jennifer Brandon among panel at marine plastics industry conference

Dr. Brandon at an industry conference on marine plastics.

Q. There are a lot of confusing labels out there on products, some are labeled recyclable, compostable, biodegradable... how should consumers think about what to choose, what should they look out for? 

Great question! My very first question back to them is: where do you live? Do you live in a city, or work at a company or university, that has municipal/industrial compost? Well then almost anything labeled compostable will work for you. But if you don't, then those products are not going to be composted, and they often can't be recycled. They would have to go to the landfill. If you have your own backyard compost, that's great! But make sure the label makes it clear that the product is compostable or biodegradable in a home compost system. Often compostable products are only compostable in an industrial-strength system, and they will last months in a backyard bin. Biodegradable is a term that can be applied differently based on what conditions the products were tested under. People often hope compostable or biodegradable plastic will degrade in the ocean; but there is a big difference between the hot, steamy soil of compost that is full of nutrients and bacteria, and the cold, salty ocean that is relatively nutrient-poor. Unfortunately, most biodegradable plastic will degrade just as slowly in the ocean as normal plastic. 


As for recyclable plastic, it's less about the type of plastic, and more about the shape. Call or search your local recycling facility online to see if they can take forks, straws, plastic film etc. Just because a product has that recycling triangle on it does not mean it's actually recyclable! I try to buy products that are already made of post-consumer recycled materials, so I know that at least part of the process has been successful in recycling, and not using virgin materials. 

 Dr. J. Brandon showing marine debris to students

 Dr. Brandon showing marine debris samples to students from San Diego.

Q. What do you think will need to change for us to reduce the amount of plastics that end up in ocean?

A lot of things will need to change in tandem. We will need to consume less, collectively and as individuals. We will need policy changes to limit single-use plastics, like straws, and grocery bags, and foam take-out containers, as well as to hold producers accountable for the large amount of plastics they produce. We will need to stop plastic from getting out of polluted rivers, harbors, and beaches, using innovative technologies. And we will need new technologies that don't yet exist to clean the plastics that are already in the ocean. 

 

 

LifeMade: We thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to chat with Dr. Brandon. Discussing some challenging topics candidly with her allows us to view our industry through a new and impartial lens. Dr. Brandon raised a number of critical points including labeling, recycling, and reducing plastics entering the waste stream. As a leader in single use disposable convenience products, we are making changes in these exact areas. For over a decade, we have been incorporating post-consumer recycled materials in our products. We have recently begun enhancing our packaging labeling to ensure consumers clearly understand what raw materials are used in our production. And most importantly, we are delivering to market truly sustainable products which when disposed of properly, will completely degrade leaving none of the harmful micro-plastics behind which Dr. Brandon clearly pointed to as a main culprit adding to the global pollution problem. 

 

Dr. Jennifer Brandon is a Senior Scientist at Applied Ocean Sciences where she focuses on biology, pollution, conservation, and science communication. She earned her PhD from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in Biological Oceanography and focused on microplastics pollution in the North Pacific. In addition to her expertise in microplastics, she is also an expert on science communication. Her research has been covered everywhere from NPR, the BBC, and The Guardian. She's passionate about communicating the impact of microplastics and individual consumer choices to the broader public. Follow her on Twitter at @PlasticsJenni, on IG at @green.graces, or at www.jenniferabrandon.com.

 

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