Cosmetics companies are very good at promoting their products as wholesome and natural, going to great lengths to make claims as to the exotic origins of the ingredients. Kelp from the southern oceans. Salts from desiccated seas. Oils extracts from Peruvian leaves. Tiny plastic beads that get ingested by marine life. OK, they don’t usually mention that one, but they do like to talk about the beads, which are there to offer a little abrasiveness to facial scrubs and assist exfoliation. You might have tried such a product yourself.
Consumers are largely unaware that these beads are made of plastic. You might assume they were some kind of sand or crushed seed, especially given the marketing that surrounds the products. But for presumably economic reasons, plastic is the most viable option.
And because these products are generally used over the bathroom sink or in the bath or shower, there’s only one place they’re going – down the drain and into the water system. At 0.01–0.5 mm in size, they can get through initial sewage treatment and make it out into the rivers and oceans.
There has been a campaign for several years to ban microbeads, but things have come to head with the Attorney General of New York State suggesting that he would be pushing for an all-out ban of the product after huge concentrations were discovered in the Great Lakes.
Pressure is now being placed on cosmetics manufacturers to change the materials they use for microbeads. However the noises coming from the industry is that they don’t see it as an urgent problem but will have a look at more environmentally friendly alternatives. If awareness of the issue grows, however, change might not be in their hands; boycotts by consumers or retailers would give them the hurry-up.
As a drainage consultancy we often advise people on what not to pour down the drain, but sometimes the problems aren’t immediately obvious. It’s probably only a matter of time before plastic microbeads go the way of CFCs in aerosol bottles. And we seem to have managed perfectly well without those.