Some people don’t even realise the damage that just washing their face or brushing their teeth with the wrong brand of product can do to our oceans. Products that contain tiny beads of plastic, such as face and body scrubs and some toothpastes, are the main perpetrators of the accumulation of these tiny beads in fish and other marine organisms.
Microbeads are really tiny plastic particles usually smaller than two millimeters. They’re widely used in cosmetics as exfoliating agents and personal care products such as toothpaste, as well as biomedical and health science research, microscopy techniques, fluid visualization and fluid flow analysis, and process troubleshooting. They are most frequently made of polyethylene but can be of other petrochemical plastics such as polypropylene and polystyrene. Bottom line, it’s all plastic!
Microbeads don’t degrade, they will just breakdown into small and smaller pieces of plastic – the scary thing is, plastic is already the most abundant element in oceans. Microbeads are easily mistaken for food in the ocean, to the point the plankton are eating them. Something as small as plankton! Hard to believe the plastic would become that small isn’t it? Plankton is at the bottom of most marine food chains, so the beads travel, and as they travel they are collecting POPs (persistent organic pollutants), long-lasting toxic chemicals like pesticides, flame retardants, motor oil and more. Theses POPs are being carried up the food chain, all the way to us. In turn something we place in the ocean is returning to us, served on a plate. Literally.
In 2015 it was estimated that in the US there were 8 trillion microbeads a day entering the ocean. But the US isn’t alone, microbeads are in products in most countries, but there is hope. Globally pressures are rising on governments to ban the usage of microbeads, and it’s working.
Currently the US has called a ban on products that use microbeads, check out this video:
The next step is to get other countries and eventually the rest of the world to eradicate the use of plastic microbeads in their products. There are alternatives to microbeads which are biodegradable and less harmful to the ocean.
For now though to personally help the cause, please try and choose products that don’t use microplastics; there are environmentally friendly products that use things such as apricot shells, cocoa beans, coffee or sands instead.
Why aren’t they removed in water treatment, you may cry. The particles are so tiny that it is near impossible to filter them out. The ones that are? Well they end up in water treatment sludge which is used to fertilise land, the microbeads then get washed off by rain and end up in the rivers on their way to the sea. The 90% of the micro plastics that is removed in the Sewage treatment plants eventually ends up in the sludge.
I have included a list of all the companies and their products which are known to contain microbeads in the UK so you can choose to avoid them and help save our oceans and marine life.
Or if you would rather something to have when you’re around the shops, there is an app. Beat the microbead! The North Sea Foundation and the Plastic Soup Foundation – launched the smartphone App in 2012 as part of their Beat the Microbead campaign. The app allows people in Hong Kong and many other countries scan the barcodes of personal care products to check for the presence of microbeads. The apps is ran by Plastic Free Seas volunteers, who have been scanning products and uploading to make it easier for consumers to make a more informed choice. Hong kong still have a long way to go as they have new microbead products being released frequently, and you can always volunteer to keep updating the app through the Plastic Soup Foundation.