Microbeads sound so innocuous, especially as part of an ingredient list in your favorite big name brand skin care products.
But they’re not.
Widely used in exfoliating products, microbeads are made of plastic, and after they’re done sloughing away dead skin cells from our faces or bodies – leaving microscopic tears in the process - they go right down the drain.
For many of us that means out of sight out of mind, but doing a little research reveals that those tiny little microbeads are a big problem to the world’s waterways.
According to a report from the U.N. Environment Program, plastic waste including microbeads causes $13 billion in damage every year to marine life. (Ref. 1)
The beads are small enough for fish and other aquatic marine life to eat, and can subsequently poison them.
And it is a very daunting task to think about cleaning up the oceans, which cover 71 percent of the Earth’s surface.
“All the king’s horses and all the king’s men will never gather up all the plastic and put the ocean back together again,” said marine researcher Charles Moore. (Ref. 2)
- A trillion plastic bags are made per year worldwide.
- It may take 1,000 years for a plastic bag to break down fully.
- Vast amounts of fish and other sea creatures are killed each year by plastic, either by consumption or by becoming tangled in plastic debris.
- 46,000 plastic particles are found in every square inch of the ocean. (Ref. 3)
The numbers are devastating, and the trash islands that are floating in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans are growing in size every day. In Los Angeles alone, 10 metric tons of plastic fragments including grocery bags, water bottles, straws and microbeads - are carried into the Pacific Ocean on a daily basis. (Ref. 4)
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch between California and Hawaii is now the size of Texas, and this is is just one of the world’s floating trash heaps.
The life of a microbead
Each of those heaps have tiny microbeads amid the trash, which flow down the drain where they pick up pesticides and other toxins.
“By the time the plastic gets downstream toward the ocean, they are little toxic pills,” said scientist Marcus Erickson. “Even a small microbead, as it tumbles downstream, is picking up all kinds of industrial toxins.”
Each tube of a standard cosmetic exfoliator contains as many as 300,000 microbeads, which after reaching the ocean in that toxic state, are consumed by small fish, which become food for larger fish and eventually find their way onto our dinner plates. (Ref. 5)
We might save the fish and other marine life some trouble if we just ate the microbeads ourselves.
Xtend-Life makes a difference
Earlier this year, we joined a global effort to eliminate microbeads, a movement that the Netherlands is leading with a complete ban on any microbead products by 2016. (Ref. 5)
Soon afterwards, Belgium also took a stand, with Belgian European Parliament Member Kathleen van Brempt saying, “It should be clear that the European Commission must prohibit the use of microplastics in cosmetics. The industry itself is now showing that it is possible and that there are natural and biodegradable alternatives.” (Ref. 6)
With natural alternatives including bamboo, salt, sugar, nut shells, seeds or the Xtend-Life option… lava rock, which can be ground to a fine pumice that lifts away dead skin cells without causing microscopic scratches, there should not be much of a roadblock to ban plastic beads.
For Xtend-Life founder Warren Matthews, his love of the ocean combined with a desire to provide exceptional products to customers made the decision to develop an exfoliating product without microbeads an easy one.
“I like to see the ocean with as much actual life in it as possible, with minimal rubbish, and preferably no rubbish at all,” Matthews said. “I became aware of the pollution problem up close and personally on a visit to a marine park in Thailand a number of years ago. The water was beautiful, crystal clear, when suddenly I was swimming through a maze of mostly plastic bags and package wrappers. This was likely dumped in the shipping routes further out. I could not see either end of this plastic maze, it must have been at least 100 meters wide. Besides making it unpleasant, all this trash is damaging life in our oceans.” (Ref. 8)
In the United States, where plastic beads are polluting the Great Lakes, Illinois became the first state to ban cosmetic products containing microbeads, with efforts going into effect in 2018 and 2019. New York banned the beads in 2014, and similar legislation was considered in Ohio and New Jersey.
Companies including The Body Shop, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal, and Procter & Gamble have announced plans to phase out plastic microbeads from their products, though it could be too little, too late.
“As for getting microbeads out of lakes, there are no prospects,” said Anna Cummins, who is also a co-founder of 5 Gyres. “Just as there are no viable solutions yet for cleaning microplastics out of the oceans. This just underscores the importance of prevention and source reduction.” (Ref. 6)
What can you do?
Check the label on your skin care products. If they contain microbeads, trade them for something else. Toothpastes and body washes can also contain microbeads, and these must be avoided.
- Use less plastic, including taking reusable cloth bags to the grocery store.
- Dispose of plastic properly, and recycle every time you can.
- Pick up plastic and litter that others have been careless with, especially near beaches, drainage systems and waterways.
For more information, visit www.beatthemicrobead.org or http://www.xtendoceanlife.org/take-action/.(Ref.8)