Pictures of microbeads in the ocean may not thrill the heart like pictures of sea turtles trapped in plastic rings, but these tiny plastics are also accumulating in our waterways and threatening the lives of marine animals.
How do microbeads get from soap to the ocean? In the most natural way, after every morning wash, these tiny plastics are washed down the drain. And environmentalists would very much like this not to happen.
What are microbeads?
A microbead is a small piece of plastic about 1 millimeter or smaller (about the size of a pinhead).
Microbeads are commonly used as abrasives or exfoliators because their hard surfaces are an effective cleaning agent that won’t damage your skin, and they don’t dissolve in water. For these reasons, microbeads have become a common ingredient in many personal care products. Products that contain microbeads include facial scrubs, toothpaste, moisturizers and lotions, deodorants, sunscreens, and makeup products.
The qualities that make microbeads effective exfoliants also make them dangerous for the environment. “The effect is similar to plastic bottles and other environmentally hazardous plastics being shredded and thrown into the ocean.”
How do microbeads get into the oceans?
These tiny pieces of plastic do not dissolve in water, which is why they are so good at removing oil and dirt from the pores in the skin. And because they are so small (less than 1 millimeter), microbeads are not filtered out at wastewater treatment plants. This means that they end up in waterways in huge quantities.
According to a study published by the American Chemical Society in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, US households wash out 808 trillion microbeads daily. At the recycling plant, 8 trillion microbeads end up directly in waterways. This is enough to cover 300 tennis courts.
While most microbeads from recycling plants don’t end up directly in water sources, the tiny plastic pieces do have a clear path that eventually ends up in rivers and lakes. The remaining 800 trillion microbeads end up in sludge, which is later applied as fertilizer to grass and soil, where the microbeads can enter water sources through runoff.
How much damage can microbeads cause to the environment?
Once in the water, microbeads often end up in the food chain, as they are usually the same size as fish eggs, food for many marine life. More than 2013 species of marine animals mistake microbeads for food, including fish, turtles and gulls, according to a 250 study.
When ingested, microbeads not only deprive animals of essential nutrients, but can also enter their digestive tract, causing pain, preventing them from eating, and ultimately leading to death. In addition, the plastic in the microbeads attracts and absorbs toxic chemicals, so they are toxic to wildlife that ingest them.
How is the world dealing with the microbead problem?
The best method to prevent microbead contamination, according to a study published by the American Chemical Society, is to remove microbeads from foods.
In 2015, the United States passed a ban on the use of plastic microbeads in soap, toothpaste and body washes. Since President Barack Obama signed into law, major companies such as Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and L’Oreal have pledged to eliminate the use of microbeads in their products, however it is unclear if all brands have followed through on this commitment.
After that, members of the British Parliament called for products containing microbeads. Canada issued a similar law to the US, which required the country to ban all products with microbeads by July 1, 2018.
However, legislators are unaware of all products that contain microbeads, creating a loophole in the US ban that allows manufacturers to continue to sell some products with microbeads, including detergents, sandblasting materials, and cosmetics.
How can I help fight microbead pollution?
The answer is simple: stop using and buying products that contain microbeads.
You can check for yourself if the product contains microbeads. Look for the following ingredients on the label: polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), and nylon (PA).
If you want exfoliating products, look for natural exfoliants like oats, salt, yogurt, sugar, or coffee grounds. In addition, you can try a cosmetic alternative to microbeads: artificial sand.
If you already have products with microbeads in your house, do not just throw them away – otherwise the microbeads from the landfill will still end up in the water drain. One possible solution is to send them back to the manufacturer.