Thursday, April 2, 2015

Your Favorite Microbead Face Wash Might Not be Good for Fish You Eat

By Samantha Bell

Commended as the “wonder material of the future,” plastic has become the most universal materials in the world. Used to make everything from food containers, to toys and even exfoliating beads, there is likely more plastic in the world than there are fish in the sea (and probably more plastic in the sea than fish, too).

Plastic may make our lives extremely convenient, but it also causes an enormous amount of damage to our environment. While we would like to think that it ends up in a recycling facility, in reality only nine percent of plastics ever meet this fate, according to the EPA. The other 91 percent ends up in landfills, or waterways where it causes further damage to local marine life.

We often refer to the “out of sight, out of mind” philosophy when dealing with plastic trash, but, as we know, nothing ever truly just disappears. There are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean. Of that mass, 269,000 tons float on the surface, while some four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer litter the deep sea, according to National Geographic.

Toothpaste companies have started to put microbeads in their “extra whitening” products to help scrub off those extra coffee stains you might have on your teeth. Everyone wants white teeth, but may not be able to afford professional whitening - this is a cheaper and more convenient alternative. These little microbeads are also found in exfoliators, face cleansers and body washes.

But what most people don’t know is that these little microbeads are tiny plastic spheres that are contributing greatly to oceanic plastic waste. While most may think that plastic pollution in our oceans is due to plastic bottles and bags, which make up about 10 percent, it is actually a result of these tiny beads - which makes up a whopping 90 percent of oceanic plastic pollution, according to the Smithsonian.

Companies may print “polyethylene” on the tube of their product, but what they should really say is, “this tube contains 300,000 tiny plastic beads.” Sadly, this is not the case, and many consumers are inadvertently dumping tons and tons of plastic into the oceans just by washing their faces and brushing their teeth.

Just like everything else that gets washed down the drain, microbeads are carried through drain pipes to water treatment facilities. However, because these beads are so small, they can easily pass through filters unchanged and wind up in local waterways, and ultimately the ocean.

Because they are so small, marine life can easily consume handfuls of microbeads without even realizing it. When microbeads and their toxic hitch-hikers get into an animal’s digestive systems they get absorbed into fat tissues, becoming part of the animal. When this animal is eaten by another, or by a human, these toxins are passed on.

Thinking about how your face wash travels through the ecosystem and comes back to you, like a vengeful boomerang, probably didn’t make you feel too great. But don’t lose hope just yet!

There are many companies who are proactively removing microbeads from their products to stop the damage they are causing to the world’s oceans. The Body Shop, Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, Procter & Gamble and the Personal Care Product Council have all vowed to start phasing out microbeads, but an all out removal of these beads is not expected until 2017.

There are many personal care companies that have opted to replace plastic microbeads with natural, biodegradable alternatives – all the scrub you love, without the plastic baggage. Yes To, Alba Botanica, and Tom’s of Maine are great brands to try (as an added bonus, they’re also cruelty-free). Beat the Microbead even has an app that can tell you which products in the store contain microbeads to help you avoid them.

While it is unfortunate that 35,550 tons of microplastics had to find their way into the oceans before we made this connection, the important part is that now that we know, we’re doing something about it.

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