Article By Emily Schinella 

Photo Credit: Essential Oxygen 

Back in the 1970s, almond shells were an emerging trend within the beauty industry, particularly in exfoliation products. However, almond shells were soon discontinued when they were found to be harsh too on the skin’s delicate surface. Picture yourself rubbing sandpaper on your skin, that is what it was like to exfoliate with almond shells. This led to an overhaul in the beauty industry, where almond shells were replaced with microbeads.

No bigger than a millimetre, microbeads are a cheap and durable product made out of synthetic materials. You may recognise microbeads on the back of some of your household and beauty products, usually under some of their pseudonyms, including,  polypropylene (PE), Nylon (PA), Polystyrene, Polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA), Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), as well as Polypropylene (PP).

Flashforward to 2019, scientists have discovered microplastics and microbeads in samples collected from one of the most remote parts of the world, Antarctica. While the rest of the world’s oceans are said to contain anywhere from 93 to 236 metric tons of microplastics. They are so small and fine that if you were swimming in the ocean you wouldn’t even notice you were swimming amongst these tiny-little-plastic particles, however, it is likely they are there, festering in the water where they can take up to one thousand years to decompose.

Whilst the impact of microbeads isn’t as great as the plastic bag, rest assured, microbeads are pretty problematic. So much so that some countries have brought in legislation that prohibits them. “At present, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom are the only countries to implement plastic microbeads bans, while the European Union proposed a ban on ninety per cent of microplastics, including microbeads,” said Marina Hansen, a volunteer from Sea Shepherd’s Marine Debris Campaign. Today, you will also find microbeads in a variety of products, including, hand soap, cleansers, shampoo, and even toothpaste.

The issue with microbeads doesn’t just lie with the chemicals that they are made from, but also their size. “Microbeads are so small that they are unlikely to be captured by conventional wastewater treatment plants and so many of them end up in rivers and oceans,” said Marina, who as part of Sea Shepherd’s Marine Debris Team volunteers in multiple scheduled beach or waterway clean-ups and campaigns for a formal ban on microbeads here in Australia.

With one tube of some facial scrubs containing over one-hundred-thousand microbeads, it is not hard to understand why some are concerned about these plastic particles and the damage they could potentially be inflicting on our environment and marine life.

“Once in the water, microbeads can have a damaging effect on marine life and the environment. This is due to their composition, ability to absorb toxins and potential to transfer up the marine food chain. These tiny plastics persist in the environment as they are durable, making them almost impossible to remove,” added Marina.

Once this small but durable microplastic enters our waterways, it almost immediately begins to impact our marine life who mistake it for food and then consume it. “There is evidence to support that krill who had ingested microplastics (microbeads) had a significant amount of scar tissue,” said Tim Kildea, a senior environmental scientist at SA Water who also volunteers at South Australia’s Reef Watch. “There is also evidence that microplastics were taken in by mussels and their livers cannot properly process them and therefore they cannot be properly ingested out. So we’re seeing significant internal damage potentially caused by plastics and microplastics,” added Tim.

Experiments have also shown that microbeads are potentially not only causing scar tissue and blocking their digestive tracts, but they also diminishing their desire to eat, leading to starvation and ultimately death. Perhaps the main issue that is brought up when discussing the environmental impact of these small-durable beads, is the issue of bioaccumulation.

“These particles (microbeads) get eaten by fish and then that fish gets eaten another fish and then it just continues up the food chain, that’s what bioaccumulation is,” said Barbara Gare, a scientist and co-owner of a certified organic skincare brand. “Bioaccumulation is not just about fish ingesting plastic, as they’re also ingesting toxic chemicals within the microbeads, which could end up killing them,” said Barbara.

If the toxicity of microbeads is wiping out fish, it can only be assumed that along with other plastics, microbeads could potentially begin to impact our fishing industry,  which is said to be worth billions, with our overseas seafood trade alone being worth around $1.2 billion. “The demand for seafood has definitely gone up within the last ten years, especially with our growing Asian population who consume a large amount of seafood,” said Tim.

Alarmingly, it is speculated that the impact of microbeads goes further than just harming our marine environment, as some believe that they could potentially begin to impact us. The impact of bioaccumulation is one way that the impact of microplastics on humans is being explored.  This is because as bioaccumulation makes it’s may up to the food chain, it potentially makes it all the way up to us on top of the food chain.

“We’re now eating more and more fish, so it’s a real question on whether us humans are potentially ingesting microplastics when we eat seafood, especially since microplastics have been found in smaller organisms like oysters to your larger fish like whiting,” said Tim. Bioaccumulation may not be the only way that microbeads potentially affect us, as some water supply companies like SA Water are experimenting with reclaimed water as a direct or indirect water supply.

“We could potentially ingest microbeads through our water supply if we utilise reused water and we cannot manage to filter them out through water treatment,” said Tim. If experts are certain on one thing when it comes to microbeads, it is that if you are using a toothpaste that contains microbeads, then you are potentially exposing yourself to them.

“If it’s in the toothpaste you are using, then you are definitely ingesting, as we swallow toothpaste,” said Tim. Despite what some skincare companies may have led you to believe, industry experts believe that microbeads aren’t doing that much for you externally either.

“The idea that scrubs containing microbeads are beneficial has well and truly been discredited, as we now know that these microplastics can damage the surface of the skin and its cells which potentially speeds up the effects of ageing,” said Barbara. “There is simply no need to practically ‘sandpaper’ the skin in order to replenish it.”

Due to the potential environmental and human impact, it is pretty understandable why many have felt the need to step into action in order to eradicate this issue.

Not as much as they have previously for done plastic bags and plastic cutlery, however, it is still a pretty substantial effort. Whilst the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom have already implemented a ban on microbeads, countries such as New Zealand, Indonesia, France, Ireland, India, Norway, Sweden, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and the Neverlands are considering putting one into effect.

There have also been rumblings of potential legislation prohibiting microbeads here in Australia, however, that is yet to come into fruition. Officials have however endorsed a voluntary phase-out of microbeads. “In December 2016, an official meeting of Australian environment ministers from federal, state and territory level agreed to endorse a voluntary industry phase-out of microbeads found in personal care, cosmetics and some cleaning products by July 2018,” said Marina.

Despite this phase-out, some are less than optimistic that we will see legislation prohibiting microbeads within the next few years. “Legislation is the only way we can go forward, otherwise it’ll just keep trickling in,” said Tim. “However, unless there’s significant evidence to support that microbeads have a direct impact on people, I just don’t see it happening,” said Tim. In Tim’s eyes, unless there is some type of incentive, much like the 10 cent refund for recycling cans and bottles, legislation is the only way to ensure compliance.

While Barbara believes it is possible that we could see legislation within the next few years with the right campaigning, she too shares Tim’s sentiment. “Our elected officials have three jobs, to represent us as well as our interests, to govern us, and to lead. Because sometimes there are things that we know are better for our society if we do them, they’re better for our planet, our physical world, and our ethical world,” said Barbara, who added that it isn’t fair for us to acknowledge to pollution caused by plastics in other countries if our own country isn’t showing initiative.

Encouragingly, despite there being no current timeline for an official ban on microbeads, some are showing great leadership by taking action against microbeads. Particularly in the beauty world, where certain brands are completely phasing microbeads out of their products.

“In 2017, the Department of the Environment and Energy commissioned an independent assessment of personal care and cosmetic products sold in supermarkets and pharmacies. The assessment found that of approximately 4,400 supermarket, pharmacy and cosmetic store products inspected, ninety-four per cent were microbead-free.

No shampoos, conditioners, body washes or hand cleaners were found to contain microbeads,” said Marina. There are also a variety of brands who are adopting natural alternatives to microbeads, including Barbara’s skincare line ‘Y Natural’. “There is just no need for them (microbeads) when there are alternatives out there that are gentle, considerate, sustainable, and just as effective as microbeads.

We use cellulose, which is from brown seaweed, but there is also almond mil and oat mill, which are both effective and gentle for those with sensitive skin,” said Barbara. When using these alternatives, you can freely lather up your face without the feeling the of guilt over what could occur if these fragments end up in the belly of a fish, as they are natural and will decompose in no time.

The next time you are in your bathroom, using your skincare, soap, shampoo, or toothpaste read the ingredients list on the bag to see if it contains a small ingredient with an even bigger impact.

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