Awareness about the overuse of plastic bags has risen significantly in past years. Cities and provinces are banning the use of plastic bags and there are many active campaigns to eliminate the use of plastic bags entirely. In recent months, a new plastic villain has surfaced. Tiny bits of plastic, less than five millimetres in diameter, are clogging the planet’s waterways and wreaking havoc on native species and ecosystems. These plastic pieces, dubbed microbeads, are used in personal care products like body wash, facial scrub, toothpastes, and hand sanitizers. Used as exfoliants, or scrubbers, microbeads are found in over 200 consumer products.
Because of their small size, microbeads easily fit through bathroom drains and are missed by waste water filtration systems. They are released by the millions into oceans, lakes and rivers. The 5 Gyres Institute conducted studies that found an average of 43,000 microbeads per square kilometre in the Great Lakes. Studies conducted in areas closer to major cities found an average of 466,000 beads per square kilometre. Fish and other marine life mistake the plastic beads for food, which causes harm to their digestive systems. Tests on fish from Lake Erie found that, on average, medium sized fish held 20 pieces of plastic in their digestive tracts, and that small fish had an average of eight pieces of plastic in their systems. Microbeads absorb toxic chemicals like DDT, PCBs, and PHAs throughout their journey from the bathroom drain to waterways, and those chemicals are passed on to fish once they ingest the beads. The toxins then work their way up the food chain and eventually humans are exposed to the danger they present.
Microbeads are not biodegradable and are impossible to remove from the water system. Some of the plastic beads have moulded to rocks and coral forming a new substance that scientists are referring to as plastiglomerate. On coral reefs, many of the coral are starving because the plastic beads clog their digestive systems, making it impossible for them to feed.
What makes this environmental disaster even more sad is that it is entirely preventable. Microbeads are not necessary additions to personal body care products. There are a number of other exfoliants that could be used in their place. Oatmeal, sugar, baking soda, ground seeds, sea salt, and coffee grinds are excellent exfoliating ingredients that pose no harm to the environment. Americans alone use over 573,000 pounds of microbeads per year. One tube of Johnson & Johnson Clean and Clear facial scrub contains 330,000 microbeads. It is imperative that manufacturers of personal care items remove microbeads from their products.
Thankfully, there is action being taken against these malicious microbeads. The state of Illinois has already banned the use of microbeads in any products sold within its marketplace. Following in their footsteps are 11 other states, including Washington, Oregon, and Hawaii, who have all submitted bills to the legislature that would ban microbeads. Major companies like Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson have committed to removing all plastics from their products, most within a five year timeline.
Microbeads are listed in the ingredients under names like polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terphthalate, polymehtylmethacrylaat, or nylon. The North Sea Foundation, in partnership with Plastic Soup Foundation, have created a smartphone app called “Beat the Microbead” that helps consumers determine if their favourite products contain microbeads. Consumers use the app to scan a product’s barcode which checks the product against a database and then indicates whether or not it contains plastic.
At Nature’s Fare Markets, we research all of our personal care products to ensure that they do not contain any plastics.