MICROBEADS OR MICROPLASTICS
Is there a difference?
According to 'Bead The Microbead', within the cosmetics industry "the term microbeads refers to the visible particles of plastic smaller than 5mm which are usually of spherical shape and have certain functions such as scrubbing and peeling or only rinse-off products. They are mainly made of Polyethylene (PE) and Polymethyl Methacrylate (PMMA). Microbeads are also considered to be microplastics. They are associated with long-term persistence in the environment if released, as they are very resistant to (bio)degradation."
But aren't they banned from products in the UK?
In Jan 2018, the UK government put a ban on the manufacture of products containing microbeads. Manufacturers of cosmetics and personal care products are no longer able to add tiny pieces of plastic known as 'microbeads' to rinse-off products such as face scrubs, toothpastes and shower gels. In 2018, there was a a ban on the sale of products containing microbeads in retailers across England and Scotland.
So what's the problem?
With hard work from groups including Fauna & Flora International, Beat The Microbead, and a countless list of others, the UK ban was a world leading ban, drawing attention to the use of unnecessary plastic in cosmetics, causing many cosmetic giants to 'voluntarily' get microbeads out of their products. The ban of microbeads is to a small solid plastic bead. However, plastic such as Polyethylene are not just added in the form of microbeads but can be added in other forms, combined with various monomers. It can be used to bind/hold ingredients together; to dilute solids; to prevent separation of oils and liquids; to form coatings on skin, hair or nails; and to polish teeth or reduce oral odour etc. There are lots more variations but let's not get too scientific here! The basis is that there are still too many microplastics polluting the environment, and also entering our food chain.
Is it just cosmetics?
Unfortunately, plastics like these are also widely used in cleaning products around the house and beyond, so you can only imagine how big this problem really is.
What can I do?
A wonderful organisation called the Plastic Soup Foundation initiated the Beat the Microbead campaign back in 2012, to educate about the problem and brainstorm ways to tackle the issue. They have created a library of products, that with a simple search, you can find out whether the products you use contain microplastics. You can find this at: https://www.beatthemicrobead.org/product-lists/ Even more, they have produced this into an app making it even easier to check products on the go before you buy. You can download this app through the usual platforms dependent on your service providers.
Start finding brands that use natural ingredients, and learn about what you are putting onto your skin, which is the largest organ of your body!
How does the pollution affect land?
It's easy to think that the washing of these cosmetics just affect our waterways, and that cleaning up the surface will solve it. However, it is said that "only 0.5% of the plastic in the ocean actually floats on the surface of the water. The rest drifts deeper in the water column or lies on the seabed. So cleaning up the water surface only solves a tiny bit of the problem."[1a.]
"These days everyone has heard the term ‘plastic soup’, but the reality is that the fields where our crops grow are 4 to 23 times more heavily polluted with microplastics than the oceans.
The microplastics that are intentionally added to our toiletries and cosmetics flow from our bathrooms into sewers. The sewer sludge, with plastic and all, is later spread on the land as fertiliser. Recent research shows that microplastics are then absorbed by vegetables and fruit such as carrots and apples through their root systems, and thus end up on our plates."[1b.]
The takeaway here is that plastic is plastic. And so, we need to reduce our use of it wherever we can!
For further reading, take a look at the following sources:
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