Microbeads are tiny balls of plastic, less than a millimetre in diameter. They supply a gentle but abrasive texture to many different products that we use to cleanse ourselves—facial exfoliants, body scrubs, toothpaste, shower gel, shampoo and cosmetics—which we then wash down the sink. They have replaced traditional abrasives like oatmeal, salt and ground nutshell.
But the stuff we wash down the sink doesn’t vanish forever: it just goes out to sea where we can’t see it. As a result, you can find microbeads embedded in coastal habitats across the world. They are in every ocean, and you can travel to the most perfect uninhabited island that humankind ever dreamed about and be confident of finding them. The sea is full of plastic of all kinds, but microbeads are especially pernicious because they are so small and so easily mistaken for food.
Filter-feeding has evolved again and again in the animal kingdom. Many different marine organisms have established a semi-passive existence in which they waft small particles towards themselves and ingest them. Other more active creatures feed by filtering nutrients from the water as they move about, and they too consume microbeads by mistake. This would be dangerous if that was all that microbeads did. But they also have the knack of absorbing toxic chemicals from the oceans. The resulting particles have been described as “toxic pills”. We’ve filled the seas with little toxic pills and they are being consumed at a terrific rate.
No creature is an island. That’s what the term “food chain” means. The beads and their toxins are devoured—and then their devourers get devoured in their turn, and on and on. The beads now affect everything that lives in the ocean and everything that takes food from the ocean: seabirds, for example. And humans. The stuff you scrubbed your face with and cleaned your teeth with comes back to you on a plate surrounded by watercress.
A great deal of work to campaign against the use of microbeads has been done by Fauna and Flora International (FFI), with the Marine Conservation Society in Britain and Surfrider Foundation in Australia. As a result, Unilever plans to phase out microbeads by the end of this year, while Procter & Gamble says it will do so by 2017 at the earliest. Other companies are following their example: Johnson & Johnson doesn’t offer a deadline but says it is eliminating microbeads and won’t develop any more products that contain them. Some companies have suggested a fudge which involves using “biodegradable” microplastics. The snag is that these don’t actually biodegrade in the sea: they need the extreme heat of industrial composting sites.
Legislation against microbeads has been passed in eight American states and is proposed in 15 more. There is also proposed legislation for the whole of America, Europe, Australia and Canada. In Europe the process is frustratingly slow, which is why campaigners have approached companies directly. The FFI has done the leg-work for consumers and produced a list of products that don’t contain microbeads, under the title “The Good Scrub Guide”. They have also produced an app called “Beat the Microbead”: you can scan the product’s barcode with your smartphone and learn whether or not the product contains microbeads.
You can also do the job yourself with an old-fashioned reading of the ingredients list: if you find the world “polyethylene”, it’s a fair bet that the product contains microbeads. Other warning signs are oxidised polyethylene, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), nylon and polypropylene. Microbeads may be tiny, but they are a very big deal.