Millions of us world-wide have been unwittingly using plastic microbeads in products such as toothpastes, body scrubs and face washes – but do we know where they end up or what impact they have on the environment? In the light of the UK Government’s proposed ban and consultation and the recently reported first evidence of deep-sea animals ingesting micro plastics, David Polya writes.
Microbeads in our Wash
Millions of people worldwide use cosmetic and health products containing tiny plastic microbeads, which help develop the silky texture of creams and lotions and help skin scrubs to exfoliate dead skin cells without being unduly harsh. Microbeads have been around for over 20 years but they have become particularly widespread over the last decade or so in hundreds of products because of their versatility, reproducibility and availability compared to alternative ingredients. Most of us in the UK have probably used such products or indeed may be doing so now, without even realising it, as we brush our teeth or wash ourselves.
Down the Drain
Once used, most toothpastes, scrubs and washes are washed down drains into the sewage system and ultimately, in many parts of the world, they then go out to sea. Although the sewage system can be pretty effective, removing as much as 99 % of microbeads from water, the huge numbers involved, as many as 800,000,000,000,000 every year in the USA alone, means that there are still trillions of particles reaching our oceans and lakes every year. The microbeads – most commonly made up of poorly biodegradable polyethylene – stay in the ocean environment for many years and are consumed by plankton, fish, birds and – ultimately – humans who eat seafood.
Killing Us Softly?
The principal concerns over plastic microbeads seem to relate to physical processes and, with microbeads being susceptible to being coated by some toxic chemicals, serving as a vehicle for increasing the exposure of various organisms to some chemicals. Research into the harmful effects of plastic microbeads on the environment and to humans is still in its infancy so the unequivocal evidence for substantial harm is rather limited – but the potential for substantial environmental harm certainly seems plausible.
In Oscar Wilde’s disturbing classic, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, the eponymous anti-hero, obsessed with vanity and pleasure maintains his good looks whilst his portrait becomes uglier and uglier as a result of his unkindness and hedonism. Is our usage of plastic microbeads in beauty products to the detriment of the environment perhaps an unwitting but otherwise similar story?
What drives product change and regulation?
One of the most interesting aspects of the drive to regulate plastic microbeads and, indeed, the prior decision by many leading cosmetics companies to replace plastic microbeads in their products with more environmentally-friendly ingredients, such as dehydrated silica or apricot kernels, is that, at face value, the main driver has the appearance of being largely consumer and stakeholder lobbying rather than a wide base of strong scientific evidence of environmental and public health harm.
Furthermore, a point made by some cosmetics companies is that their products provide only a small fraction of the microplastics entering the ocean. Wishful thinking? Well, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) have independently come to the same conclusion. In particular, they highlight synthetic textiles and car tyres as other, more important, sources of microplastics. The Norwegian Environment Agency found that, in Norway, wear and tear of tyres and paints and washing of clothes made from synthetic fibres all produced substantially more particles of microplastics than did the use of cosmetics.
Thus, although the planned withdrawal of plastic microbeads by cosmetic companies seems to address plausible scientific concerns and is also responsive to consumer and stakeholder concerns, whether those concerns are strongly justified at this time or even directed at the most appropriate microplastic source are matters subject to question.
Perhaps this balance of drivers reflects the particular importance of consumer opinion in fashion-oriented industries such as cosmetics, but perhaps it also reflects a rather deeper truth more generally about what drives environmental regulation and decision-making in our world.