Microbeads are found in personal-care products such as Exfoliators, body scrubs and toothpaste that contain microbes. They are tiny bits of plastic which are less than five millimeters in diameter. Scrubbing agents are usually on-third to one millimeter in size. These microbeads are turning up everywhere, in our oceans, lakes and along shorelines. They aren’t biodegradable.
Research by the 5 Gyres Institute found an average of 43,000 beads per square kilometer in the Great Lakes, with concentrations averaging 466,000 near cities. Tests on fish from Lake Erie found an average of 20 pieces of plastic in medium-sized fish and eight in small fish. Cormorants, which eat fish, had an average of 44 pieces of plastic each. Microplastics have been found in the oceans and even under Arctic sea ice. Scientists at Australia’s James Cook University found corals starving after eating the tiny beads, their digestive systems blocked.
These beads absorb toxic chemicals, making them poisonous to any creature that mistakes them for food or that eats another that has ingested the plastic – all the way up the food chain. These toxins can end up in our bodies, where they can alter hormones and cause other health problems.
Exfoliators and scrubs can use any number of harmless natural ingredients, including baking soda, oatmeal, ground seeds, sea salt and even coffee grounds. Microbeads can be found in some toothpaste. This can be harmful and stick to your gums with can cause inflammation and infection.
Microbeads have produced and marketed without adequate consideration of the long-term consequences. No thought was given beyond the fact that beads wouldn’t clog drains.
Most plastics eventually break down into micro particles, often ending up in oceans and other waters, where they’re only part of the problem. Most plastics eventually break down into micro particles, often ending up in oceans and other waters, where they’re eaten by organisms ranging from tiny plankton to large whales. Some plastics have even started to fuse with rocks, creating a substance new to our planet that scientists call “plastiglomerate”.
One of the long-lasting recent changes to the surface of our planet is the accumulation and fragmentation of plastics. This is astounding, considering mass production and widespread use of synthetic, mostly petroleum-based plastics only began in the 1940s. More plastic was produced in the first century than in the entire previous hundred years.
Microbeads are among the newer developments in the brief history of our plastic lifestyle. The 5 Gyres Institute launched a campaign asking companies to remove them from products. So far, L’Oreal, The Body Shop, Colgate-Palmolive, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble have agreed to do so. Several U.S. States and European countries are planning to ban the beads, and Environment Canada is studying the problem. The federal NDP has introduced a motion to ban them here.
As consumers, we can avoid products containing microbeads and put pressure on companies and governments to end their use (5 Gyres has an online petition). And, because more than a third of all plastic is disposable packaging, such as bags and bottles, we can and must limit our overall use, and reuse or recycle any that we do use.
Plastic has made life more convenient, but many of us remember a time when we got along fine without it.
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