Millions of 'mermaid's tears' wash ashore in France and Spain: The plastic pellets may have fallen from a cargo ship

Tracey Folly

Years ago, I noticed something strange about the bottle of body wash I had recently purchased. It used to have beads of jojoba oil that would burst on your loofah or scrub brush, releasing a smooth oil to soothe and hydrate your skin.

The jojoba oil beads had been replaced with beads of plastic.

I wondered how something like that could happen. Why would anyone want to scrub their bodies with plastic pellets, and more important, where would they go once washed down the drain?

According to Sailors for the Sea, this is where those microbeads end up:

When you use products that contain plastic microbeads, they go down the drain. And because they’re too small to be filtered at wastewater treatment plants, these tiny plastics can end up in our rivers, lakes and oceans. In fact, 8 trillion microbeads enter United States’ waterways every day.
Once in the water, microbeads can soak up toxic chemicals like a sponge. And the problem is these microbeads are the same size as fish eggs and look like food. If fish eat the microbeads, those chemicals can end up in the food web and onto our dinner plates.

Manufacturing products that contain microbeads was prohibited in the United States in July 2017; retail sales were prohibited as of July 2018. The ban applies only to rinseable products such as body wash and toothpaste that are made to be rinsed down the drain. Other products, such as cosmetics, were not affected by the ban.

So what are mermaid's tears and what do they have to do with microbeads?

The manufacture and sale of products containing microbeads may have been banned, but there are still plenty of insidious sources of small plastics ending up in our environment, including our oceans, which brings us to the wave of plastic pellets that washed ashore in France and Spain recently.

These plastic pellets, known as nurdles, number in the millions, and when nurdles hit the ocean or wash ashore, they are sometimes called mermaid's tears.

They measure one-and-a-half millimeters in diameter, approximately the size of a lentil. These small plastics did not escape from bottles of body wash or toothpaste. These small plastics are the raw materials used to make all sorts of plastic goods.

Due to their similarity, it is believed they may have come from a single cargo spill, according to a recent report by CBC. They are impossible to trace, nearly impossible to clean up, and are bound to break up into microparticles that will be ingested by fish, some of which are sure to make it into the human food chain.

How difficult is it to clean the beaches of mermaid's tears? There are millions of these small plastic beads in the ocean, and the effort to clean up just 60,000 of them was around 180 man-hours. That's not even a drop in the bucket.

The only solution was never to have spilled these nurdles in the ocean in the first place.

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Writing about relationships online since 2009.

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