Body scrub, face scrub, foot scrub, hand cream and toothpaste. Most people use at least one of these daily, however the majority do not know about a hidden toxic ingredient – microbeads. Microbeads are plastic microspheres used in many products for exfoliation purposes and have replaced natural exfoliants like salt and ground nut shells. Rebecca Owen is an Oceanographer, and she explains that microbeads ‘consist of a variety of chemical compositions and are non-biodegradable, which means they can persist in the marine environment for long periods of time without undergoing degradation’.
1,147 personal cleaning products have been found to contain microbeads in the US. One tube of facewash can contain over 330,000 microbeads, and once these are washed away they are impossible to remove from water. The beads are too small to be filtered out in water treatment plants and so contribute to the growing mass of plastic in our oceans. Scientists from the US, Chile, France, Australia and New Zealand published a journal in December 2014 which suggested that there are at least 5.25 trillion plastic particles in our oceans, weighing nearly 269, 000 tonnes in total.
As research increases, scientists are coming to know more and more about the toxic effects of microplastics on our oceans and wildlife. So far 663 species of marine wildlife are known to have been affected by plastic pollution and 90% of sea birds tested have been found to have plastic in their stomachs. Even more worryingly, scientists have found a direct link to plastic pollution through the food chain from plankton first consuming the plastic, to the fish which are then consumed by us. Due to the chemical nature of these plastics, Rebecca Owen also explains that ‘the surface of microplastics can also attract and absorb pollutants, such as PCBs and DDT’, and Greenpeace have argued that a single plastic particle can absorb up to one million times more toxic chemicals present in the ocean than water. All in all, microbeads have proved themselves incredibly toxic to the oceans, to wildlife and to us.
Microbeads are still relatively unknown to the general public. A survey by Greenpeace in April found that over two thirds of people were not aware of microbeads, but that after learning about them 84% of consumers would avoid a product containing microbeads. Over 90% of people in the survey also supported a ban from the government.
The UK is trailing behind on this issue, as the US passed a bill in December last year to ban microbeads and manufacturing will be ending entirely from mid-2017. Canada plans to follow this example and Sweden, Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy have asked the EU to pass a ban on microbeads. The UK has adopted a policy which urges companies to stop using microbeads but currently has no way of enforcing this. Campaigners like Greenpeace have been protesting the government for the past few years on the issue, and their recent petition has received 302,234 signatures so far. Another campaign named ‘Beat the Microbead’ has developed an app to allow users to scan a product before buying to reveal its plastic content. The app uses a colour code system of red (contains microbeads), amber (contains microbeads but the company has promised to replace them) and green (contains no microplastics). The findings from this campaign have shown that some products by Clinique, Elemis, L’Occitaine en Provence, Clean & Clear, Neutrogena, Dior and Colgate contain microbeads. Full lists of affected products can be found on their website.
I interviewed Vivienne Evans, a University of York masters student studying Marine Environmental Management who founded the #ditchthosebeads campaign. Vivienne began her campaign after learning about Microbeads in her final year of undergraduate study. She says ‘Gradually I realised that almost no one I spoke to about them knew what they were and I knew that it was an issue that needed to be brought to people’s attention’. She explains that ‘Microbeads are totally unnecessary and could so easily be eliminated comparatively to other plastic products. There is a whole host of other natural organic alternatives that fulfil the same exfoliating role as microbeads without causing harm to the marine environment. Their aesthetic purpose should not qualify their addition to products given the known impacts they have on marine life’. Vivienne has chosen to study microbeads as her topic for her masters dissertation, and is passionate about the cause, realising that ‘it was a cause that needed greater, more innovative efforts in order for a change to happen’.
She has strived to find new ways to communicate with people on the importance of banning microbeads. As well as using social media to raise public awareness, she approaches newspapers, television programmes and NGOs to ask for collaboration, as well as ‘talking to people about it constantly which I’ve found is also extremely effective!’. Vivienne and the #ditchthosebeads team have recently fundraised for and consequently produced a music video for a very catchy parody of ‘Uptown Funk’, written to further spread the message in another medium. So far over 7000 people have seen her campaign on Twitter and 3000 more on Facebook.
The campaign already has several videos on YouTube and the new ‘Uptown Funk’ parody video which contains ‘scenes of sexy-legged crabs throwing giant toothpastes in bins’ and ‘penguins getting microbeads taken out of their hair in hair salons’ will no doubt further increase awareness of her campaign. The film is shot in York, and involves dancing marine life and is highly entertaining. Vivienne has also produced merchandise such as the #ditchthosebeads t-shirts seen in the video, which are available on the campaign website to help spread the word.
Mostly, Vivienne urges people to ‘help spread awareness by talking about microbeads and sharing posts about them on social media’. She is also realistic about the future of microbeads ‘Even if legislation is passed in the UK to ban microbeads in products, this most likely will not come into effect for several years. In the meantime, microbeads will continue to have an impact on marine life’. She therefore realises the importance of ‘improving public awareness so that consumers can make intelligent decisions when purchasing products’.
I look forward to watching the spread of Vivienne’s video and the future of microbead legislation in the UK. Awareness is gradually being raised about the dangers of microplastics, and the sooner the change is made, the better for the environment, wildlife and even us. I’ve already started lecturing my family on some of their product choices – maybe you should too.
You can watch the #ditchthosebeads campaign video below: