You stopped buying plastic bottles some time ago. You shifted to reusable cutlery ever since you learned about the dangers of plastics. While such lifestyle changes can go a long way in reducing plastic pollution, you are still missing out on the tinier often more harmful forms of plastics that end up killing thousands of marine animals each year. These are known as microplastics. Smaller than a grain of sand, microplastics known as microbeads (because of their colorful bead-like appearance) are found in cosmetics such as exfoliants, face washes, shower gels and toothpastes.
Why are we talking about microbeads?
Researchers estimate that 8 metric million tons of plastic ends up in the oceans every year. Out of this about 1% or roughly between 93,000 and 236,000 metric tons accounts for microplastics. While this may be a rough estimate, it is a massive amount. It is no surprise that the world’s oceans, rivers and seas are at the receiving end of mankind’s increasing dependence of plastics. The aquatic animals and those feeding on them, from massive whales to oilve ridlety turtles– washing up dead ashore or dying under mysterious circumstances have also been growing in recent times. The co-relation between the rising plastic in oceans and death of animals might not seem direct but is definitely linked.
The world has finally woken up to the voice of environmental activists voicing concerns over microplastics and microbeads. US President Barack Obama recently signed a bill banning microbeads in cosmetics which will phase out by July 2017. Canada, Australia and several European countries are in line to implement a similar ban.
What happens to plastic that ends in water bodies?
All plastic eventually breaks down into smaller pieces. While some might remain unchanged over time, most breaks down under the effect of sunlight. Unfortunately, animals also mistake it for their food and end up consuming bits of plastics.
Especially critical to aquatic animals are the microplastics such as microbeads. Found in cosmetics such as exfoliants, face washes, bathing gels and toothpastes, these are microplastics about 1-5 mm in diameter.
What are microbeads and why are companies using it?
Microbeads are colorful tiny spherical or irregular bits of plastic added to a product like an exfoliant (face scrub) by corporations to make the product appealing. Microbeads add nothing of cosmetic value to the scrub but are added simply for coarseness in the scrub. There are many natural alternatives like oatmeal, sand, sugar, salt, shell, coconut etc that can be used instead and would even complement the scrubbing process needed for an exfoliant but because microbeads are cheaper, corporate choose the latter.
It is worth mentioning here that UNILEVER has phased out use of microplastics in 2015 according to the announcement on their website. In 2014, cosmetics giant L’Oreal also committed to phase out all polyethylene microbeads by 2017. Johnson & Johnson also announced to phase out the use of polyethylene microbeads by 2017 on their website.
How does microbead pollution affect us?
These same tiny plastics that you wash your face with or brush your teeth with can end up back on your plate of fish fingers.
Plastic microbeads are washed down drains and end up in wastewater treatment facilities where because of their small size and large surface area they absorb toxic organic chemicals (like pesticides, flame retardants, PCBs, motor oil etc) while remaining unchanged physically and consequently flushed down into sea.
Since microbeads resemble fish eggs, they are mistakenly fed on by fish and other aquatic animals. When we harvest these for our consumption, the toxins absorbed by these microbeads enter our system from the fish tissues.
Am I using a product with microbeads?
Here is a list of ingredients you should look to ensure your purchase is without microbeads:
– Polyethylene /Polythene (PE)
– Polypropylene (PP)
– Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
– Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)
(Note: Polyethylene (PE) isn’t the same as polyethylene glycol (PEG). While the former is a microplastic when found in a cosmetic, the latter is commonly added to cosmetics.)
Beat the Bead campaign
Beat the bead campaign aims to end the use of microbeads in our products and replace the plastic particles with eco-friendly alternatives such as anise seeds, sand, salt or coconut witch were originally used before microbeads found use.
What can I do?
*Say NO to products containing microbeads (scroll up to check the list of ingredients which constitute microbeads).
*Sign Abhinav Singh’s petition to ban production of plastic microbead products in India.
*Tell your friends and family about the dangers of microbeads
*Share this article on your social media channels with the hashtag #BeatTheBeadIndia
*Identify local products with microbeads (scroll up to check the list of ingredients which constitute microbeads) and add its name in the comments below.
*Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean (research)
Thinker, writer, eco-feminist, seeker of truth.