Our Plastic Universe: A Closer Look at Microbeads

By Emily DiFrisco

The images are shimmering and metallic—like minerals found in nature. But the subject of Erica DiGiovanni’s photographs is actually synthetic: plastic microbeads from common personal care products like face washes and toothpaste.

To create her installation Plastic Universe, DiGiovanni bought drug store face washes and strained the plastic beads with boiling water and a coffee filter. She photographed the plastic pieces using a microscope, making their tiny details visible to the human eye.

DiGiovanni chose to focus on plastic microbeads after learning about the problem of plastic pollution as a scuba diver. She has seen items like a plastic construction worker's hat in the water, but she's learned that it is the smallest pieces of plastic that pose the biggest threat to the ocean and marine life. 

The problem of plastic microbeads is complex: the beads make the journey from tube to drain to waste water treatment center, where they are too small to be filtered out. Microbeads end up in waterways and oceans, where they absorb toxic chemicals. The polluted particles are then eaten by fish and other sea animals.

Growing awareness and international campaigns have pushed the cosmetics industry to begin phasing out these harmful products, and countries such as the U.S., U.K., Canada, France, and Taiwan have initiated microbead bans, but many countries still prefer to rely on voluntary commitments from the cosmetics industry. 

DiGiovanni says the time is now to stop polluting the ocean. “I never thought I would be spreading awareness on environmental issues; I always thought that it was someone else’s problem to fix,” she explains. “But that all changed after I started scuba diving because I completely fell in love with the ocean and wanted to do something to help protect it from human destruction.”

She chose to focus on plastics because it’s something we can change in our lifetimes. “I encourage people to make more conscious choices,” says DiGiovanni. “Our daily choices have power in them. Choose food with less packaging and personal care products without microbeads. We each have voices we can use for change.”

For her part, DiGiovanni will continue to raise awareness about microbeads, plastic pollution, and the health of our oceans. The subject of her next photography project? Found plastics and washed ashore microplastics.

For more information about Plastic Universe, contact the artist.

Learn more about how to choose products without plastic microbeads.