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Cosmetic and personal care products such as facial exfoliators, body scrubs and toothpastes have become an ubiquitous part of daily life. But what are we really washing down the drain?
From scrubs to toothpastes, soaps to sprays, you might be surprised to learn that the gritty polishers and sparkly glitters used in a plethora of bathroom products are actually tiny pieces of plastic.
Commonly known as microbeads, these tiny pieces of plastic (or microplastics) are less than a millimetre in diameter. After use, they are designed to wash straight down the drain and invariably flow out to sea because they are too small to be filtered out during sewage treatment.
Once they reach the sea, microbeads are impossible to clean up and add to the growing volume of plastic in the world’s oceans.
This truly is a global problem, with microplastics found embedded in a wide range of coastal habitats, in every ocean and even on the shores of uninhabited, picture-perfect islands.
Unfortunately, their small size means they are regularly mistaken for food by a wide range of marine life – from the tiniest plankton and filter-feeding molluscs to crustaceans, fish and even foraging seabirds.
What’s more, microplastics adsorb and concentrate toxic chemicals from seawater, effectively acting like toxic pills for the animals that eat them.
There is a mounting body of scientific evidence to confirm suspicions about the impacts of microplastics (and the chemicals associated with them) on marine life. The evidence also raises real concerns about the transfer and accumulation of these toxicants up the food chain and the potential implications for human health.
Plastic waste has no place in the marine environment. Unlike the vast majority of threats to our seas, the unsustainable and unnecessary use of microbeads is one that can be tackled head on.
FFI has been at the forefront of efforts around the world to stop the use of microplastic ingredients in cosmetics and toiletries by engaging directly with some of the world’s largest multinational corporations and the public’s favourite high-street retailers.
Through this work, FFI and our partners have convinced a number of market leaders (including giants Unilever and Proctor & Gamble) to phase out the use of microplastic ingredients in their products. In Australia, we have even encouraged policymakers to call for a formal ban on the use of microplastic in light of the threat it poses to our environment.
These are encouraging signs, but to ensure complete success, we need you – the consumer – to help us drive lasting change.
As a consumer, you have a great deal of power. By choosing products that are free of microplastics, you will not only help stem the tide of microbeads into our seas but will also be voting with your wallet – sending a clear message to manufacturers that you want to see an end to this pointless pollution.
To make this as easy as possible, FFI and partners have created the Good Scrub Guide which provides clear, non-biased information on which products are free from microplastics.
Featuring the most common facial exfoliators available on the market, the guide helps conscientious consumers choose products that do not contain plastic microbeads.
For those on the go: you can also download the free Beat the Microbead smartphone app. This app, which allows shoppers to scan a product’s barcode to check whether it contains plastic microbeads, was developed in partnership with the Plastic Soup Foundation – which has been the driving force behind what has become a global movement.
Importantly, through regular updates and correspondence with manufacturers, the Good Scrub Guide and the Beat the Microbead app will indicate which brands are taking positive steps toward removing plastic microbeads from their products so that you can stay informed along the way.
If your favourite product or brand is not listed in the Good Scrub Guide, please tell us about it using the Marine Conservation Society’s online form and we will look into it.
In the meantime, you can also check the ingredients list: Polyethylene is the main type of plastic microbead used in exfoliators, so if your product includes this, it is highly likely that these beads will be contributing to the growing problem of microplastic pollution.
Other plastic types to be aware of include oxidised polyethylene, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), nylon and polypropylene.
Visit our marine plastic pollution page to learn more about why scientists are concerned about microplastic pollution.
For regular updates, follow @GoodScrub on Twitter.
These microbeads are washing straight down the drain and invariably enter the marine environment because their size makes them impossible to filter out. Once they reach the sea, they are impossible to clean up.