Microbeads and Microplastics: Tiny Culprit, Huge Problem

What Are Microbeads?

Microbeads are manufactured plastic particles which are less than one millimetre in diameter. They are made from synthetic polymers including polyethylene, polypropylene, nylon, polymethyl methacrylate, or polyethylene terephthalate. Plastic microbeads are used in hundreds of items, but most often found in personal care and cosmetic products, such as exfoliants and cleansers. Face washes, body scrubs and toothpastes are some the major culprits which are most commonly found in households. Alongside their beauty claims, microbeads also have the ability to extend a products shelf life, add bulk to products and can be manufactured inexpensively. These factors combined made microbeads an appealing product and helped to increase their popularity globally.

In recent years it has become apparent that these tiny particles have harmful environmental effects. Because of their small size, most microbeads are not captured at waste water treatment facilities, so they get washed down the drain and end up in rivers, lakes and oceans. Microbeads do not disintegrate or dissolve in water and overtime accumulate in the marine environment causing problems for many ocean dwelling species. Over the last six years, actions have been taken and legislation has been implemented to get microbeads banned and raise awareness about how they are impacting both us and our oceans. Improvements have been seen, but there is still a long way to go to get these polluting plastics out of the environment once and for all.

Microbeads or Microplastics?

Simply put, microbeads are just one type of microplastic.

Microplastics are defined as small plastic particles, usually less than five millimetres in size, and they can be classified as either primary or secondary. Primary microplastics are intentionally added to a product but unintentionally released into the environment. They can be found in personal-care products like facial cleansers and toothpaste (microbeads), but also from wear and tear of synthetic products such as car tyres, clothing and plastic based paints. Secondary microplastics are formed by the fragmentation of larger plastic items such as fishing gear and household waste. These larger pieces of plastic can disintegrate over time due to UV radiation, salt water, microorganisms and mechanical degradation from wave and wind action.

Why Are Microplastics a Problem?

Whether they are primary or secondary microplastics, or microbeads which have been specifically manufactured, all of these plastic particles end up having the same negative consequences on us and the environment. Microplastics are not biodegradable so they pose a significant environmental concern, in particular to our oceans. These tiny pieces of plastic accumulate in the marine environment where they persist for thousands of years and harm marine species.

It is the small size of microplastics which makes them so dangerous. At less than 5mm in diameter they can easily be ingested by marine creatures. From whales and sharks, to plankton and fish; microplastics have been found in a shocking number of organisms in every ocean around the world. They are ubiquitous and nowhere has managed to escape their presence.

Of course, ingesting plastic has no nutritional value for marine species, but more worrying it can actually harm them. The consumption of indigestible plastics can lead to a significant reduction in nutritional uptake and causes damage to an organism’s digestive tract. These plastics also transfer up the marine food chain and bioaccumulate in the larger species. The secondary effect of microplastics has a more long-term effect on the animals. Microplastics have the ability to adsorb high levels of toxins and persistent organic pollutants (POPs). They are especially prone to this bonding due to their composition and relatively large surface area. These toxins can bioaccumulate over many years, progressing to disruption of biological processes and potentially altering their reproductive fitness. Additionally, toxins can also be transferred or offloaded from mother to offspring which has the potential to influence growth, survival, and reproduction of the offspring.

Microbeads also have negative impact on humans. Since we are ultimately at the top of the food chain, it is likely that we also end up ingesting microplastics too. Although the full extent of what we are exposed to is not yet know, enough research has been conducted to show that microplastics hold dangers toxins which should not be in our bodies.
These reasons, both environmental and human, highlight why you should try to avoid  buying products containing microbeads.

Legislation to Ban Microbeads

Government legislation is a great way to reduce the amount of microbeads entering the environment. They have the power to stop the problem at the source, meaning the effects can be far reaching and long term. Laws help to highlight the importance of the problems to an entire country and force companies to alter their products. However, it is not always straight forward and the process can be very slow to implement. Loopholes are often found and companies find ways to still use microbeads.

Since microbeads first came to the public’s attention in 2013, a lot of countries have made changes to their legislation;

The Netherlands was in fact the first country to ban cosmetic microbeads in 2014.

The United States was close to follow with The Microbead-Free Waters Act, a law that was introduced in 2015. It prohibited the addition of plastic microbeads in the manufacturing of personal care products. However, the Act only banned “rinse-off” cosmetic products that perform an exfoliating function, such as toothpaste or face wash. Other products were not included.

In January 2018, a ban on the use of microbeads in rinse off cosmetics and personal care products came into effect in the UK with The Environmental Protection Regulations.

Several other countries have also banded rinse-off cosmetics, including Canada, France, Italy, India, Taiwan and New Zealand.

This worldwide government legislation has already helped to change things for the better, but the coming years will be crucial for implementing tougher restrictions against microplastics which are now known to cause harm to human health and the environment.    The European and American consumer markets are some of the biggest in the world. Their laws will greatly influence purchasing behaviours around the world. The more countries that get involved, the further reaching the positive impacts will be. Plastic pollution doesn’t adhere to country boarder, so microbeads will still accumulate globally in our oceans as long as they exist in the environment.

Alternatives to Microbeads

There are lots of natural alternatives to microbeads which still achieve the same outcome. Whether it’s silky, smooth skin or cleaner teeth you’re after, there is a natural product you can replace your microbeads with. Sugar, coffee, sea salt and oats all do a wonderful job of scrubbing away dead skin cells. Bamboo and coconut fibres are also being used. Plastic microbeads were originally chosen over these materials because of their regular shape, lack of sharp edges, and sterile nature, but dermatologists have found that the natural alternatives are healthier for the skin and exfoliate just as efficiently. These products are less harsh on the skin and the natural ingredients break down and dissolve without negatively impacting the environment. If you wish to help the environment and look after your skin at the same time, make sure to make the change these natural alternatives. It is very unlikely that products will not have the word ‘microbeads’ written on them, even if they do contain them. Make sure to check the ingredients list for polyethylene, polypropylene, nylon, polymethyl methacrylate, or polyethylene terephthalate.

How We Can All Do Better

By changing just a few small things in your life, you can help to drastically reduce the negative impacts seen from microplastics and microbeads in the environment;

  • Do not buy products with microbeads in them, find natural alternatives. Never underestimate how much power you have as a consumer. Companies have to pay attention if their products are not selling. You can even try making your own face and body scrubs if you wish to reduce your plastic waste even further!
  • Use reusable water bottles, coffee cups and shopping bags. The less plastic waste we throw away, the less there is in the world to end up in our oceans and be broken down into microplastics. Find alternatives wherever you can.
  • Buy fewer plastic products. Try buying loose fruit and vegetables in supermarkets or find a store where you can fill up glass jars with items like pasta, cereal and nuts.
  • There are so many wonderful schemes in place that recycle all sorts of items these days, so make sure to separate your rubbish correctly so that it ends up in the right place.
  • Educate friends and family- spread the word and encourage others to make small changes too. If everyone can do something small, it will be a massive leap in the right direction. If children are educated from early on, they will grow up being aware of the problem and wanting to live more sustainably. This will hopefully lead to a new generation whose main aim is not economic growth and profit but looking after the environment.

No single action can end the microplastic and microbead problem, but educating people and raising awareness about the true impact they have on our environment, will hopefully continue to lead to small actions by all of us as well as larger actions by governments around the world.