Plastic is unavoidable in modern society, and unfortunately the vast majority of the plastic products we use will long outlive us. While we can (and should) recycle a lot of our plastic waste, microplastics (including microbeads) are a form of plastic that is difficult to dispose of thoughtfully.
What is microplastic?
Simply put, microplastic consists of bits of plastic – usually defined as less than 1 mm wide. Because these particles are very small, they’re often not completely filtered out by sewage treatment and make their way into the environment, and in particular the sea.
Where does it come from?
Microplastics come from a range of sources:
– Bits breaking off larger plastic objects
– Fibres coming loose from synthetic materials in washing machines
– Personal care and cleaning products, such as face scrubs containing scrubbing beads or microbeads (usually listed in the ingredients as “polyethylene“)
What’s the worry?
There’s a lot of it, it’s everywhere, and it’s not going to go away. Scientists have only recently realised how widespread microplastic is, so the research on its effects has only really just begun. But it’s already been established that lots of marine animals low on the food chain, such as shellfish and worms, that are used to eating microscopic organisms end up eating microplastics. These end up in their tissue, and these eventually pass up to larger animals (e.g. fish and seals).
As well as the physical effects of eating plastic, there’s also a worry that these plastics can carry toxic chemicals – many toxins are attracted to plastics rather than water, and so the toxins end up concentrated on the little particles, and can move through the food chain that way.
What can we do?
Even though the impact of our exfoliating scrubs on the environment isn’t clear at this stage, there’s no harm in trying to reduce how much plastic we wash straight down the sink, when there are so many easily accessible alternatives!
There are many scrubs on the market which use ground nuts, jojoba beads, flowers and other natural, biodegradable materials instead of plastic (although many “natural” products contain microplastics anyway – check the ingredients!).
Plus you can always mix your own environmentally friendly scrub – add salt, sugar, sand or ground oatmeal to your cleanser (see this DIY face scrub for example!), or use a facecloth or exfoliating brush for non-disposable scrubbing action.
Unilever (makers of brands such as Dove, Vaseline, Lux, Radox and St Ives) announced late last year that they plan to phase out microplastics in their products by 2015. It’s likely that other companies will follow suit, so microplastic-based scrubs will hopefully be soon be a thing of the past!
MA Browne et al., Accumulations of microplastic on shorelines worldwide: sources and sinks. Environmental Science & Technology, 2011, 41, 9175.