Microbeads are a top issue at the moment. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) is calling for them to be banned, they have been identified as a serious pollutant in our seas and oceans and were a focus of World Environment Day 2015.
But what are microbeads? What products are they in and why? Why should you care?
What Are Microbeads?
Microbeads are small pieces of plastic that are put into cosmetics, skin care products, shampoos, conditioners, toothpaste and more to aid with things like exfoliation, bulking up, forming a film, providing a base for the active ingredients, a binding agent, sparkly bits and more.
They have been used for about 50 years and are very widespread in products around the world.
Different products have different amounts – some only 1%, others 90% or more. The size of these plastic particles varies too – some you can see and feel and others are so minuscule that you don’t know they are there.
Why are they a Problem?
Many of the products microbeads are found in are ones that you put on your skin/hair/teeth and then wash off. The tiny bits of plastic get washed down the drains and into sewers.
They are far too small for sewage works to collect (and recycle), so they end up in the rivers and then the seas.
Many marine animals such as molluscs, fish, basking sharks and even baleen whales feed by filtering the sea water through their various feeding apparatus before expelling it out. Usually they trap plankton and krill. However, they also trap and eat microbeads.
They cannot digest the microbeads. The marine creatures suffer as the amount of microbeads (and other pieces of micro-plastics which have broken down from larger plastics floating in our oceans) builds up in their bodies. Even worse is that microbeads are known to attract and absorb persistant organic pollutants such as PCP’s and DDT from the marine environment. Though these chemicals are banned in the UK, they are still used in other countries and are still found in our oceans. (more details here)
This impacts on us too – we eat some of those marine animals, possibly including the pollutants that are now part of their bodies.
So What Can YOU Do?
Well, the main thing is to not purchase products that have these chemicals in them. If you really need a scrub then there are many great alternatives available – Dead Sea Salts work well or even a loofah or sisal soap bag. Other products use natural abraisives such as crushed apricot seed shells or similar. Our Faith In Nature and PHB ranges have some great alternatives too.
Luckily for us, the lovely people at the North Sea Foundation and the Plastic Soup Foundation have created an app so you can scan the barcode of a product with your phone and see if it has any microbeads in. You can download the app at Beatthemicrobead.
Otherwise the most common microbeads to look for in the ingredients list are:-
- Polyethylene/Polythene (PE)
- Polypropylene (PP)
- Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
- Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)
Some companies have announced their intent to stop using microbeads including Unilever, Johnson & Johnson and the Body Shop, many others have not. So putting pressure on companies to stop using these plastics in their products is also a great step.
I have gone Microbead free – will you?
UPDATE: 24th August 2016: In the UK the Environmental Audit Committee of MP’s has recommended a total ban on microbeads. Please help keep the pressure on the government to ensure that microbeads are banned and soon!