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What are microbeads and why could they be banned?

Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has announced plans to ban the use of microbeads in cosmetic products by the end of 2017, in line with regulations already put in place by the American and Canadian governments.

Microbeads are tiny pieces of plastic that are added to a variety of household products: toothpaste, shower gel and facial scrubs are all common examples. They have come under fire recently, as experts have realised they cause serious damage when they are washed down plug holes and end up in the ocean.

Microbeads are made of plastic and therefore are not biodegradable, and therein lies the problem. They are designed to be small, often to provide an exfoliating sensation, but they are so tiny, usually less than 5mm, that they pass through the filters that regulate water being returned to the ocean. 100,000 microbeads can be washed into the ocean from a single application of some products.

From there, they enter the food chain, and significant numbers end up in the stomachs of fish and even sea birds. The potential damage this could cause to the animals themselves is serious and unfortunately widespread. Experts are also concerned that animals at the bottom of the food chain will consume the beads, and humans who consume those animals might suffer detrimental effects. This process is known as bio-magnification, and has been a problem with some toxic pesticides in the past. Emma Cunnigham, of the Marine Conservation Society, has added that the microbeads “contribute to the massive issue of marine litter.”

Environmental groups and NGOs have helped to speed up the process of banning the beads through raising awareness. Greenpeace has been particularly vocal on the issue. India Thorogood, a blogger on their website, wrote: “We [the consumer] shouldn’t have to watch out for such unnecessary and damaging products”. And clearly, the UK government is now listening.

The first study to detail the potentially adverse effects of microplastics came in 2004 from the University of Plymouth. The leader of the study Professor Richard Thompson stated that the volume of microplastics in the ocean was rapidly increasing. This is due in part to the fact that UV light degrades large pieces of plastics, for example carrier bags, into smaller pieces, eventually creating microplastics. But it was not until 2009, when Fendall and Sewell from the University of Auckland discovered microbeads from cosmetic products were not removed by ocean filtration systems, that the world really began to take notice.

Although it is not clear what the direct consequences of having microplastics in marine ecosystems and food chains are, their presence still constitutes pollution. And as with many types of environmental damage, by the time consequences become apparent, it may be far too late for the Earth to make a full recovery.

Image: Carlos Galindo

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