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Why Microbeads Should Be Banned Worldwide

Updated on December 20, 2016
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

Science graduate and business advisor, health educator and author, Beth's articles cover a wide variety of subjects.


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Banning microbeads will help save our oceans.
Banning microbeads will help save our oceans. | Source

What Are Microbeads?

Microbeads
The Facts
How big are microbeads?
Less than 5mm
What shape are they?
Perfectly spherical
What are they used for?
Exfoliating grains in body scrubs
What are they made from?
Plastic
Why are they used?
They are cheap
Are they legal?
Already banned in some countries

They are used as ingredients in personal care and cosmetics products (PCCPs) for a variety of purposes such as ... exfoliation, viscosity regulation and many others. ‘Microbead’ is one of many terms applied to plastic PCCP ingredients; they may also be called microplastics, microspheres, nanospheres, plastic particulates etc.

— UN Environmental Program: Plastic in Cosmetics

Plastic Microbeads Are Poisoning Our Oceans

You may not have heard the term microbeads before today, but you’ve probably been using them for years. If you use body scrubs, exfoliating creams, toothpaste, shower gels or shampoos then microbeads rather than a natural material may be the abrasive agent in them. You won’t find them listed in the ingredients. Instead you will see polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate or polymethyl methacrylate which are all forms of plastic. A natural alternative would be silica or silicate which are types of sand.

What’s the Problem with Using Microbeads?

Microbeads are minute pieces of plastic that are a dangerous pollutant. Every day millions of these tiny beads are carried with our waste water into rivers and oceans. They are too small to be filtered out by water treatment works. At less than 5mm in size they are difficult to see unless you use a microscope. They drift unnoticed and unseen and become part of the food chain. The beads absorb toxic pollutants from the sea and these build up in the organs of fish and other sea creatures. This affects their health and longevity which in turn upsets the ecological balance of their aquatic environment.

For excellent descriptions of the real life impact that microbeads have on the environment I recommend MICRO 2016: Fate and Impact of Microplastics in Marine Ecosystems: From the Coastline to the Open Sea. Written by an international team of scientists, the book includes ecological examples from all over the world.

Microbeads: Face to fish.
Microbeads: Face to fish. | Source

Keep Plastic Off Your Skin and Out of Our Waterways

The video below illustrates environmental research carried out in North American and Canadian waters. It demonstrates how plastic microbeads are a major pollutant.

1. Microbeads contribute to the oceans’ “plastic soup”.

2. There are environmental and ecological consequences of continuing to use microbeads.

3. Microbeads are entering the food chain.

4. The plastic beads don’t dissolve or break down in the environment. They cannot be recycled.

5. Manufacturers need to act; one tube of facial scrub contains more than 300,000 plastic microbeads.

6. Consumers need to act by boycotting products that contain microbeads.

Will you stop using plastic micro bead personal care products?

See results

Leading Brands That Have Stopped Using Microbeads

Company
Date by which their personal care products microbead-free
Unilever
2015
Proctor and Gamble
2017 at the earliest
Beiersdorf
2016
Colgate-Palmolive
2016
L'Oreal
2017
Johnson & Johnson
By end of 2017
Adidas
2016
Avon
Phasing out in next few years
Crest
2016
Dermalogica
2015
Ikea
2013
Lush Cosmetics
2014
Information is from the website ‘beat the microbead (dot) org’.

1. Stop Buying Products Containing Microbeads

You can help save our seas by changing your buying habits. The companies listed above have already stopped or have pledged to stop using plastic microbeads as abrasives. They have done this as a result of consumer pressure. When enough people stop buying something, manufacturers have to listen.

I have only named major multi-national manufacturers of personal care products, but there are many smaller ones who have also removed plastic beads from their formulae. If you’re not sure whether there are microbeads in your favorite personal care product, study the ingredients listed on the pack. Avoid using anything that contains polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate or polymethyl methacrylate. Look out instead for alternative abrasives such as silica, volcanic minerals and wax beads.

2. Campaign for Change, Put Pressure on Your Politicians

The US is ahead of the pack. In December 2015, President Barak Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act which bans the use of microbeads by 2017 in exfoliating personal care products.

The Whitehouse press release said “the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 prohibits the manufacture and introduction into interstate commerce of rinse-off cosmetics containing intentionally-added plastic microbeads.” This means that throughout the US it will be illegal to sell personal care and cosmetics products containing microbeads after 2017.

In UK pressure is building for parliament to take similar action (see video below).

There are many organizations around the world trying to get the use of plastic microbeads completely banned. They work together under the broad banner of “Beat The Micro Bead Campaign”. Some of the groups involved in this campaign are:

Greenpeace

The North Sea Foundation

The Plastic Soup Foundation

The United Nations Environment Program

The Body Shop Foundation

Fauna & Flora International

Together they have produced an international smartphone app to help consumers avoid using cosmetics containing microbeads. The app can be downloaded from ‘get (dot) beat the micro bead (dot) org’.

3. Download International Smartphone App

"An App that allows you to scan products to check for the presence of plastic microbeads.

How to use:

Scan the product barcode with your smartphone. The App will read the bar code, and indicate whether microbeads are present in the product.

Red: This product contains microbeads.

Orange: This product still contains microbeads, but the manufacturer has indicated it will replace or adapt the product.

Green: This product is free from plastic microbeads."

(Quote from Beat the micro bead (dot) org)

Push for a Worldwide Ban on Plastic Microbeads

A total amount of 4360 metric tons of micro-plastic beads were used in 2012 across all European Union countries plus Norway and Switzerland according to a survey by Cosmetics Europe, focusing on the use of micro-plastic beads, with polyethylene beads representing 93% of the total amount equaling 4037 metric tons.

— UN Environmental Program: Plastic in Cosmetics
microbeads
microbeads | Source

UK Government Considers Microbead Ban

The UK government has promised to remove microbeads from all personal care products by the end of 2017. However a report published by DEFRA (Department of Farming and Rural Affairs) says that personal care products account for just 4.1% of all micro plastics entering the world's oceans.

The Guardian newspaper (12/20/2016) reports on renewed calls from environmental groups for the ban on microbeads to be extended to include all product groups (e.g. washing detergents) and not just body scrubs, toothpastes and similar. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/20/ministers-explore-extending-microbead-ban-household-products

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