What's the deal with microbeads?

Have you heard mention of plastic microbeads on the news recently, with stories about tiny pieces of plastic washing ashore on popular Auckland beaches and plastic pollution on Christchurch's shore appearing online and in newspapers over the past couple of years, and you're curious about what they actually are? Are you an environmentalist or science student, eager to learn more? Want to know more before you sign the petition calling for a total legislative ban in New Zealand?


Here's the run down on plastic microbeads, and why we need to them to be banned in New Zealand. 


So, what is a plastic microbead?

Plastic microbeads are tiny pieces of plastic, less than 5mm in diameter - with some as small as 1mm in diameter! These microbeads are commonly added to day-to-day products such as face scrubs, exfoliants, body wash, and even some toothpastes. They are mostly made from polyethylene (PET), but can also be made from polyethylene (PE), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), nylon and polypropylene (PP), so make sure you're checking your product ingredients for these names - although they don't always have to be declared! 

Why are they being added to our day-to-day products?

Supposedly, plastic microbeads offer an abrasive, exfoliating quality to products such as scrubs and exfoliants, and a scrubbing quality to products like toothpaste. In reality, plastic microbeads are probably only used because they're cheaper than the natural alternatives that have better exfoliating qualities anyway. Not only are plastic microbeads generally cheaper to produce, but organisations such as The Story of Stuff have described how the smoothness of plastic actually makes consumers go through products containing microbeads faster than products containing natural alternatives - meaning more income for those companies including microbeads! 

What's the problem with having a cheaper option in our products?

Okay, so we know that microbeads are commonly made from plastics. Why would we want to scrub plastic all over our skin - or even in our mouth? One of the major issues with plastic microbeads, and the reason we are determined to see them banned in New Zealand, is exactly this - they're totally unnecessary, with safer, natural alternatives readily available - coffee grounds, sea salt, coconut sugar, walnut shells and apricot seeds have all been used for their exfoliating properties in a huge range of products! 

But it's not just because it's kind of gross to have plastic all over our bodies that we need this ban to be put in place. Plastic microbeads can have an extremely negative environmental impact - much bigger than you'd think, considering their small size! 

Every single year, 650 tonnes of microbeads are released into the oceans. In the United States alone, there's an estimated 11 billion microbeads washed into the ocean every single day! They're too small to be filtered out of the water system, so once they're washed down the drain in your daily face wash, you can consider them an ocean pollutant. Plastic microbeads are entering the marine food chain due to their resemblance in size to plankton, a primary food source for a large portion of marine organisms. The ratio of plastic to plankton in the ocean is already more than 2.5, so we can assume this will get even worse. 

Once a marine organism has consumed a plastic microbead, a process called biomagnification occurs. Basically, biomagnification describes the increasing concentration of a substance in the tissues of an organism as it moves up a food chain. This is particularly important because of plastic's property as a material which absorbs persistent organic pollutants. 


"Initially, twelve POPs have been recognized as causing adverse effects on humans and the ecosystem and these can be placed in 3 categories:

    • Pesticides: aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex, toxaphene;
    • Industrial chemicals: hexachlorobenzene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); and
    • By-products: hexachlorobenzene; polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDD/PCDF), and PCBs." - Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants


Basically, these harmful chemicals are absorbed by the tiny plastic microbeads then steadily increase in toxicity as they move up the food chain. Which is bad news in itself for the marine environment - but what about that piece of fish you ate last week? Yes, plastic microbeads are also potentially bad news for human health!

We should just use biodegradable plastic microbeads! That would solve the problem, wouldn't it?

Actually, no. The term biodegradable in relation to plastic is actually extremely misleading - all plastic will eventually break down into smaller particles, but retain their composition as a plastic. Microbeads are already tiny - how much smaller can they break down to? Bioplastics still take time to break down, and continue to bioaccumulate the persistent organic pollutants. It's okay though - there are plenty of natural alternatives that we can turn to!

We can tell this is a huge issue for the environment - what's being done about it?

Internationally, amazing progress has been made in terms of banning and dealing with microbeads. In the United States, the Microbead-Free Waters Act 2015 will see a total legislative ban on the sale of products containing microbeads by July 2017. Other countries are implementing bans too - Canada and the Netherlands have already confirmed bans, and a number of European states are calling for a Europe-wide ban to be considered. 

Other countries, such as Australia, have developed voluntary commitment programmes to ask companies to opt out of including microbeads in their products. However, we don't view this as an effective solution to the issue due to the risk of patchy coverage, with some companies deciding to continue to include microbeads in their products, and the possibility of non-binding policies allowing continued use even if a company has committed to removing them from their products and sale. 

If a voluntary commitment programme won't work, what will work for New Zealand?

Article 23 of the New Zealand Waste Minimisation Act 2008  states that regulations may be made controlling or prohibiting the manufacture or sale of products that contain specified materials when there are alternatives available. We know there are tonnes of alternatives available to plastic microbeads, so we're urging the New Zealand government to use the powers of this Act to place a total legislative ban on the manufacture and sale of products containing microbeads. We see a total legislative ban as the only acceptable outcome in terms of reducing the environmental and human health impacts of microbeads, as voluntary commitments can be changed and disregarded at any time - only a law will be binding.

What can I, as an individual, do to help?

  • The most powerful step you can take right now to help us in this campaign is to sign the petition calling on the New Zealand government to put a complete legislative ban in place on the manufacture and sale of microbeads.
  • Head over to Beat The Bead and check out their product lists to ensure you're using plastic microbead-free products! 
  • Keep an eye on our Facebook page for any calls to action, volunteering opportunities or events in relation to our microbead campaign. We'll also keep our Beauty and The Bead campaign page and Take Action pages regularly updated.
  • If you're outside of New Zealand and know your country is still using plastic microbeads, consider starting your own campaign to help us collectively improve our marine environment!
  • Finally, spread the word as much as you can about the impacts and costs of plastic microbeads - our collective voices are powerful!


Check out the Story of Stuff 2-minute microbeads explainer below for an extra quick and easy description of microbeads!


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  • published this page in Microbeads 2016-08-22 17:29:22 +1200

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