Plastic shopping bags, bottles and other forms of plastic, commonly found littering our countryside, waterways and beaches, have been widely recognized as major environmental pollutants. However, minute plastic micro beads pose an equal threat to our ecosystem. But to date, these plastic micro beads have not been given as much credit for the contribution they make to the rapidly growing sea of plastic in our rivers, lakes and oceans, to our ecosystems or to human health.
What are Plastic Micro Beads?
Plastic micro beads are tiny particles of plastic that are incorporated into hundreds, or possibly even thousands, of toiletries sold in countries all around the world. They are in a vast number of personal products including toothpaste, body and facial scrubs, and shower gels. These tiny bits of plastic wash down the drain of your basin, shower or bath, flowing into the sewer network.
Wastewater treatment plants don’t have the necessary filters required to remove these tiny particles during the treatment process. Like other plastics, these micro beads do not break down readily but rather tend to persist in the environment.
Consequently, they are discharged together with the treated wastewater into rivers, and are carried into lakes and eventually the ocean, where they contribute to the ever-growing environmental menace of marine plastic debris.
Why are Plastic Micro-beads so Bad?
Plastic micro-beads do not break down in the environment and consequently persist in both freshwater lakes and the oceans. Fish and other aquatic organisms mistake these tiny plastic beads for food and readily consume them. Because plastic is not easily digested, these bits of plastic accumulate within the bodies of animals that ingest them. The plastic beads are then are passed along the food chain to any predator who consumes prey that has either eaten micro beads directly or indirectly (by consuming prey that has ingested the plastic).
Considering that humans are apex predators that fill the top spot on both freshwater and marine food pyramids, we are also in danger of consuming bits of plastic when we eat shellfish, fish, or even waterfowl that may be contaminated.
Phasing Out Plastic-Microbeads
Now that this problem has been acknowledged, environmental groups are putting pressure on manufacturers of personal care products to remove plastic micro-beads from their products. While many manufacturers have taken steps to replace plastic micro beads with environmentally-friendly alternatives consisting of natural materials that are readily biodegradable, such as ground peach pips or walnut shells, the phasing out process is somewhat slow. Consequently, there are still personal care products on store shelves that contain plastic micro-beads, which are adding to the plastic soup in our waterways and oceans.
There’s an App for That!
Now, if you are concerned that you may be contributing to the problem by using your favorite exfoliating scrub or shower gel, you can now download a smartphone App that will let you know whether a product contains plastic micro-beads or not. The name of the app is “Beat the Micro Bead“.
This app allows you to check if a product contains microbeads by simply scanning the product barcode with your smartphone’s camera. The results are presented via a simple traffic light interface that allows you to see the products eco-friendly status at a glance.
The app was originally developed by two Dutch NGOs – the North Sea Foundation and the Plastic Soup Foundation. Consumers in Holland were able to check whether personal care products contained plastic micro-beads by scanning the barcodes. In 2013, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) together with Fauna & Flora, an environmental NGO based in the UK, got on board. The goal was to develop the app further so that it could be used internationally to help address the problem. These NGOs recommend a voluntary phasing out of microplastics in cosmetics, but are now pushing for an all out ban on microplastics in beauty products.
The latest update to the app has expanded the number of products and countries available for scanning.
How to use the App
- Download and install the ‘Beat the Micro-bead‘ App on you phone (you can download the App here).
- After you have installed the app, you must choose the country where you reside.
- Using your smartphone, scan the barcode of the beauty product you wish to check.
- Red: The product contains plastic micro-beads.
- Orange: The product does still contain plastic micro-beads, however the supplier has pledged to replace these with an eco-friendly alternative within a specified period.
- Green: The product does not contain plastic micro-beads.