After much publicity and petition signing, today it has been announced that a ban on microbeads in cosmetics will be introduced. This sounds like a great breakthrough until the whole issue of microplastics is addressed.
Microplastics are classified as pieces of plastic smaller than 5 mm. They occur from the degradation of larger plastic debris but also as a direct contribution from microbeads. These microbeads are added to everything from toothpaste to body scrubs for use as abrasives.
The popularity of these beads in everyday products causes huge problems as hundreds of thousands of beads can be flushed down the drain in a single shower. As the beads are extremely small measuring down to a micrometer (1 μm = 1 x 10-6 m) they pass through the standard sewerage filters and enter the water cycle to be deposited in our oceans and rivers. These beads can then be ingested by aquatic life and hence enter our food chain. In fact if you were to eat 6 oysters, it is reported that 50 microbeads would have gone down with them.
As the beads linger in the seas (there is even evidence of deposition in ocean sediments) and have a high surface area, they attract and adsorb pollutants such as pesticides. The beads then travel around the globe holding the pollutants close before releasing them in another part of the world, wreaking havoc with the aquatic environment.
The US has already addressed the matter of the ‘toxic beads’ and will introduce a ban on microbeads in scrubs and facial washes in 2017; this is where the problem lies. This is a very specific ban in which only ‘wash-off’ toiletries are targeted. Other products such as deodorants, suncream and make-up are to be banned on a voluntary basis with household cleaners having no such ban even mentioned. The beads are still going to be filtering into our water system, albeit hopefully less of them after this ban comes into force, but aquatic life is still going to be exposed to these beads. If this continues for a long period of time, the beads will continue to accumulate and cause irreversible damage to our aquatic environment and the wildlife in it.
With 86 tonnes of microplastics introduced to the environment a year from facial washes alone, it begs the terrifying question of how much microplastic is introduced from other sources?!
Many supermarkets have already removed microbeads from their own-brand products and Waitrose has taken a step further to stop stocking products which contain such beads. With a voluntary ban alone, this issue could escalate out of control as large companies were already exploiting loop holes in their promises, such as not specifying a date to stop the sale of microbead containing products and only stopping the sale of certain products.
Many people may not realise their products contain these beads and would be distraught at the knowledge they are polluting our environment. Is it really worth irreversibly polluting the environment for something so simple as exfoliation when natural, biodegradable alternatives could be used instead?