The vast majority of Britons support banning the use of microbeads, according to a survey by Greenpeace. Over 90% of survey respondents favoured a ban on microbeads, which are used in toothpaste and a wide range of personal care products.
The Greenpeace poll showed that 84% of British consumers would be put off buying from a company if they knew it was extensively polluting our oceans.
Microbeads, usually made of polyethylene, and sometimes also petrochemical plastics such as polystyrene and polypropylene, are tiny microspheres that are extensively used in cosmetics as exfoliating agents, and in personal care products such as toothpaste, as well as biomedical and health science research.
Microbeads get through the filters in our sewage systems and pollute our rivers, lakes, canals and oceans. They get into the stomachs of marine creatures, which many of us then eat. (Image: beatthemicrobead.org/en/photostream)
Microbeads too small for filters to catch
Microbeads from personal care products are washed down the drain and pass unfiltered through the sewage treatment plants, ending up in rivers, canals and the sea, resulting in plastic-particle water pollution.
They can stay in the environment for up to five decades and build up into higher concentrations.
Billions of these beads end up in our oceans every day – they represent a major threat to marine life in general, and the survival status of several endangered species.
Our oceans are already filled with hundreds of millions of tonnes of plastic. Approximately 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans each year. These kinds of things, including microbeads, end up in the stomachs of turtles, fishes, whales, seabirds and other marine life.
The problem can come back to haunt us too, in the fish that many of us consume.
Microbeads have been detected in large quantities in the faeces of several species of wildlife. However, much of it stays inside the animal and accumulates. (Image: beatthemicrobead.org/en/photostream)
According to Greenpeace, over 250,000 people have signed a petition urging Prime Minister David Cameron to ban microbeads. In 2015, US President Barack Obama signed legislation to ban microbeads that are used in personal care products, beginning in 2017. Canada is about to do the same.
A relatively easy environmental problem to solve
Louise Edge, Greenpeace UK oceans campaigner, said:
“These results show clearly that a vast majority of U.K. consumers are concerned that the personal care products they buy are causing millions of microplastics to flush down our drains and out into our marine ecosystems.”
“Microbeads are one of those rare environmental problems that are actually relatively easy to solve. A ban is easy to introduce and alternatives are already available. Although it would not alone eradicate the problems caused by microplastics, it would set an important precedent in the U.K. that pumping plastics into our oceans is not acceptable.”
Plastics News quoted Philip Law, Director-General of the BPF (British Plastics Federation), who said:
“The BPF’s policy is against the use of microbeads in cosmetic applications on account of difficulties in controlling their widespread dispersal after use.”
“We understand that a long string of top cosmetic brands has committed to stop using microbeads voluntarily.”
Microbeads are accumulating everywhere, even on riverbanks and beaches. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science has a team of researchers trying to create biodegradable microbeads. (Image: Virginia Institute of Marine Science)
Find out which companies stopped using microbeads
At beatthemicrobead.org, you can find out which companies are pledging not to use microbeads in the products.
You can check your personal care products and toothpaste for the use of microbeads.
Some people have decided to go all the way and exfoliate with natural products like sugar, kernels, or a wash cloth.
According to beatthemicrobead.org:
“Each recommended dollop for face wash can cause over 150,000 plastic beads to flood into the ocean. Chemist Sherri Mason found that the an average bottle of face wash can contain around 1.4 million microbeads.”
“Do not think you are safe from microbeads if you do not use an exfoliant face wash, they could very well be present in your toothpaste and body wash as well.”
According to research carried out by scientists at the University of Plymouth in England and published in the scientific journal Marine Pollution Bulletin (citation below) last year, 5000 to 95,000 microbeads are released into the environment with every single use of personal care products.
In an Abstract in the journal, the researchers wrote:
“In conclusion, cosmetic exfoliants are a potentially important, yet preventable source of microplastic contamination in the marine environment.”
Citation: “Characterisation, quantity and sorptive properties of microplastics extracted from cosmetics,” Imogen E. Napper, Adil Bakira, Steven J. Rowland and Richard C. Thompson. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 15 October, 2015. DOI: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2015.07.029.
Video – Barack Obama signs Microbead-free Waters Act
In December 2015, US President Barack Obama signed a new law banning microbeads that are used in personal care products.