What are microbeads and why should we ban them?

Posted by India Thorogood — 14 January 2016 at 12:57pm - Comments
All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace

Washed your face with an exfoliating face scrub recently? Brushed your teeth with some smooth mint toothpaste? Unfortunately then, you may have unknowingly used a product containing gross, polluting plastic. Although we’re often made to believe these products are good for us, both beauty experts and ethical campaigners are criticising the use of tiny pieces of plastic called microbeads.

Why does this matter? Well, there’s already tonnes of plastic swirling around our beautiful oceans - bottle tops, plastic bags and lots more. In fact, about 8 million tonnes of plastic enters the oceans every year. These kinds of things end up in the stomachs of seabirds, whales, turtles and other marine life. They can them come back to haunt us too, in the fish that some of us eat. Microbeads are unable to be filtered by our sewage systems, meaning they create a high level of ocean pollution.

Ocean plastic does not disappear by itself, so for every bit that ends up in the ocean, means more cleaning up to be done - with much of it impossible to tackle at all. 

But campaigners are making more and more progress when it comes to plastic - just look at the plastic bag charge implemented in the UK this year. When it comes to microbeads, President Obama has just outlawed them - and so has the Canadian government. That’s why we’re hoping that David Cameron will decide to follow in their footsteps and cut down on the disgusting plastic filling our oceans.

Here’s a quick-run down of what you need to know:

What are microbeads? Microbeads are tiny pieces of plastic that are added to everyday cosmetic products face wash, toothpaste, abrasive cleaners and lots more. They are most frequently made of polyethylene but can be of other petrochemical plastics such as polypropylene and polystyrene. Microbeads are small enough to go down your plughole and easily pass water filtration systems., usually smaller than 5 millimetres. 

How do they affect the ocean? Microbeads are tiny, and may seem harmless, but 100,000 microbeads are washed down the sink with the single application of some products, ending up in the sea, up the food chain.

Where do they end up? New scientific research is continuing to find more and more examples of plastic inside all kinds of sealife. But it’s not just marine life, a recent study showed that 90 per cent of birds have plastic in their stomachs too! Microbeads end up in humans through toothpaste and if you eat seafood that has ingested microplastics and the toxins that come with them. Check out this really useful infographic to find out more.

Who’s campaigning and taking action? Canada and America are banning them. Companies like Asda, Avon, the Bodyshop, L’Oreal and Boots are pledging not to use them on their own brand products - but they may still stock other products with microbeads in. NGOs and campaigners are both working with brands for an end to the use of microbeads and asking governments to consider banning them all together.

How can I find out if products include microbeads and limit my use of them? You can find a list of companies who are pledging not to use microbeads here. You can check your toothpaste and cleaning products for the use of microbeads. If you want to go all natural, you can also try exfoliating with natural products like kernels, sugar or a wash cloth. We shouldn’t have to watch out for such unnecessary and damaging ingredients though - so make sure to sign and share the petition to David Cameron.

Digital campaigner at Greenpeace UK

@indiathorogood

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