That large amounts of microplastics are released into the Baltic Sea is not news. But how much microplastic that comes from the many different sources of emissions is still highly uncertain.

Therefore, there was great interest when Katja Broeg, ecotoxicologist at the Baltic Eye, Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre, presented new findings on all the microplastic that ends up in the sea through the use of everyday products like shower gels and scrubs.

– People care about plastics in the ocean. Many are not aware that by cleaning and softening their own skin, they contribute to the release of microplastics. It is still news to many consumers, says Katja Broeg.

Forty tons of microplastics a year

Her calculations are based on Euromonitors comprehensive consumer data on the use of cosmetics and personal care products throughout the Baltic Sea catchment area. Approximately 130 tons of microparticles from these products are flushed out with household waste each year. And of those, up to 40 tons passes through the sewage treatment plants and continues into the Baltic Sea. (Read more about the results here)

The results were presented at a so-called Baltic Eye Breakfast at the Slussen Hilton early in the morning on 14 April. In addition to politicians and officials with an interest in maritime affairs, many media representatives from national radio, television and newspapers also attended the breakfast to learn more and report on the findings.

– I also took the opportunity to talk a bit about the effects that microplastic may have on the marine environment and how it can affect plankton and other marine animals, says Katja Broeg.

People in the audience showed particular interest in details on how microplastics affect animals in the sea. And according to Katja Broeg it is important for both scientists and the media to inform, but also to differ between what is scientifically substantiated facts and what has not yet been proven.

– For example, she says, someone in the audience wondered if the microplastics are be linked to the decline in the eider population. We know nothing about that, and to my knowledge no such link has been proven.

Microplastics to a higher level

Baltic Eye primarily addresses decision-makers, with the goal that all decisions on the Baltic Sea environment is taken on good scientific basis. When it comes to microplastics in personal care products the public, i e the consumers themselves, are also decision-maker, says Tina Elfwing, director of the Baltic Sea Centre.

– Consumers can choose what products they use. But to make that choice, they must have knowledge. Therefore, it is encouraging that these new findings had such a great impact in the public media. This way, the knowledge is conveyed and the question gets raised, she says.

Tina Elfwing also points out that although much of the actual “news" (the amount of microplastic that ends up in the sea every year) is based on Katja Broegs own research, a substantial part of the whole presentation also involves work from other scientists. For example, an important report about how much microplastic that passes through the sewage treatment plants comes from IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute, while data on the population in the Baltic region comes from the BONUS project RECOCA.

- This is exactly how the Baltic Eye should work. We analyze and synthesize relevant research and data from multiple sources, no matter which university they come from, with the goal of raising society's knowledge, says Tina Elfwing.

Easy first step to strangle emissions

The emissions from cosmetics and personal care products represent a relatively small proportion of all microplastic annually released into the Baltic Sea. Meanwhile, the mapping of amounts and sources of emissions is an important cog in the on-going work being done within the EU and the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM) to reduce emissions of microplastics and their impact on the marine environment.

– This study is a first step in doing the mapping and creating a broader survey of the problem. Within Baltic Eye we will continue collecting data and research on microplastics and other sources of emissions, says Katja Broeg.

She hopes that the large medial impact of her recent study leads to both political and public actions.

- Emission of microplastics from personal care products is a problem that we actually can do something about. Several large companies have already started to phase out plastics in their products. If only more companies in all countries do the same and if people stop using products containing microplastics, then we can stop these emissions altogether.


Baltic Eyes findings in the news media:

• Your hygiene products destroys the Baltic Sea, TV4

• 40 tons of microplastic flushed out to sea this year, Dagens Nyheter

• Micro Plastics from bathroom disturbs marine animals, Sveriges Radio, Vetenskapsradion

• Plastic in the Baltic Sea - very harmful, SVT Nyheter Stockholm

text: Henrik Hamrén