There has recently been controversy surrounding the use of microbeads in many of our everyday products such as facial scrubs and makeup. Microbeads are tiny pieces of plastic under 5mm and conservationists have claimed that the use of them has serious environmental consequences. But what exactly is so bad about these tiny beads of plastic?
In 1976 John Ugelstad made a series of tiny, spherical polystyrene beads of exactly the same size. This was a small, yet revolutionary, medical breakthrough, as they could be used to treat cancer, help with HIV research and they even helped form the technological basis for home pregnancy tests. Yet it is the use of microbeads within cosmetic products which has been the source of ongoing controversy. They are used in many of our everyday products and are small enough to go down our plugholes and pass through water filtration systems.
An environmental audit committee has recently called for a worldwide ban on cosmetic microbeads. While they have a definite value to science, the use of microbeads in face scrubs, body washes, and more, is having a ‘ruinous’ impact on the natural world.
The website storyofstuff.org has claimed that the billions of microbeads going down our drains every day ‘absorb toxins in the water, are eaten by marine life, and can make their way up the food chain all the way to our dinner plates’. The environmental impacts of microbeads have been widely recognised, with an estimated 86 tonnes of microplastics being released into the environment every year in the UK from facial exfoliants alone, let alone any other products they are found in. The small size of these microplastics means that they can be easily ingested by marine life and have the ability to transfer chemicals to and from the marine environment. What happens then is that microplankton consume the beads, slightly bigger fish consume the plankton, and so on until they reach our own plates. Shockingly, a 2016 study found that a quarter of all fish now contain plastic.
What scientists fear is that the chemicals within plastics, and chemicals which attach themselves to plastic, could cause poisoning, infertility and genetic disruption in marine life, and these effects could potentially be found in humans if they are ingested in high enough quantities. It is these risks which contributed to the committee calling for a ban on microbeads, especially as they are avoidable. The UN report claimed that ‘the presence of microplastic in foodstuffs could potentially increase direct exposure of plastic-associated chemicals to humans and may present an attributable risk to human health’.
While many companies, such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Clarins, Estée Lauder and Superdrug have made a voluntary commitment to phase out the use of microbeads in their products by 2020, the committee has said that a national ban would be preferable as it would have advantages for the industry in terms of ‘consistency, universality and confidence’. For such a tiny object, the scale of the problem is truly huge.