Environmental awareness is a passion of copy editor/writer Simone Delochan: last year she examined the dangers of helium-balloons and the attached dangling ribbons (even the so-called ‘biodegradable balloons’) and the one-use disposable straws. She writes of yet another hidden danger to the environment.
On January 9 of this year, the UK passed legislation which banned the use of microbeads in cosmetics and not because they are against healthy skin. Turns out these little beads are also terrible for the environment.
Found in facial and body washes as well as toothpastes, at the time of their development they were seen as marvels of invention. Isn’t that the way it always goes though. We can thank John Ugelstad for their development.
What made them remarkable when first manufactured in 1976 were that they were tiny spheres made of polystyrene and all exactly the same size. Only NASA had done this before. Typically, microbeads are 0.5 to 500 micrometres in diameter.
According to the online magazine, Wired, in an article published August 25, 2016: “Ugelstad’s invention of microbeads was a minor medical breakthrough; they could be used to treat cancer, help with HIV research and even form the technological basis behind home-pregnancy tests.”
The problem however is their presence in cosmetics. A 2015 report by the journal Science indicated one shower can send hundreds of thousands of these beads into waterways. They are so tiny they shouldn’t cause a problem, right? Not quite.
Collectively, they form a large surface area and are like sponges to large amounts of toxins and chemicals. The Society for Conservation Biology, in a research paper brief indicated: “Microbeads pass through water treatment facilities, are released into natural waterways and become microplastic debris. Microplastic is ubiquitous in aquatic habitats, including bays, estuaries and shorelines, coral reefs, the deep-sea, freshwater lakes, rivers and Arctic Sea ice. Microplastics persist in aquatic and terrestrial habitats for decades where they accumulate hazardous chemicals. Microplastic has been reported in hundreds of species globally, including marine mammals, turtles, seabirds, fish and invertebrates. Microplastics cause physical and chemical harm to animals.”
They are tiny enough for fishes to eat, and from there, they travel up the food chain back to humans. Greenpeace refers to these microplastics as a “toxic time bomb”. Forbes magazine has sited dentists’ concerns that microbeads from toothpaste are getting stuck in gums thus trapping harmful bacteria (January 9, 2016,‘You Need To Know About Microbeads, The Banned Bath Product Ingredients’). The Independent UK, in a slideshow said, “Microplastic has spread all over the planet with one estimate suggesting there are three billion pieces in the Arctic Ocean alone” (July 21, 2017, ‘UK ban on microbeads to be ‘strongest in the world’, say delighted campaigners’).
In 2015, then President Barack Obama signed The Microbead-Free Waters Act into law. In 2017, it became illegal for companies to manufacture products that contain plastic microbeads, and by 2018 the sale of these products will also be prohibited.
In the UK now, microbeads can no longer be used in personal products. Other countries are paying close attention and making moves to ban the use:
* New Zealand’s ban on the sale of personal care products containing microbeads begins July 1, 2018.
* The Canadian ban on microbeads came into effect on January 1, 2018. The ban effects products that contain microbeads ≤ 5 mm in size, which are often found in bath and body products, skin cleansers, and toothpaste.
* Authorities in India have passed a resolution to ban use of microbeads in all forms of cosmetics (2017).
* The Italian parliament adopted a proposal on December 19 to ban microbeads scrub particles in cosmetics as of 2020. In addition, Italy will be the first country to ban plastic cotton buds as of 2019. (2017) (source: www.beatthemicrobead.org)
There are other types of plastics which are added to personal care products: Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) or Nylon. A glance at the list of ingredients at the back of the product would guide in which should be quietly placed back on the shelf.
We are lucky here in Trinidad and Tobago with a wide variety of soaps etc which are made organically and are more environmentally safe. And they are not necessarily high priced. I find it fun, actually, to experiment with what is available and bought in my favourite store on Henry Street.
Right now, I am using one with coffee grounds as the exfoliant, and I have not broken out in any strange skin rashes—people actually are afraid to try the ‘homemade stuff’, preferring to religiously apply manmade chemicals.
It may seem a small, unimportant matter, but given the accumulated effects of decades of negligence, every little counts.
Simone Delochan’s email address is email@example.com