Microbeads: An Ocean Hazard

By Natalie Camrud ‘17 & Diva Gattani ‘17
Fashion Columnists

Have you ever bought an exfoliating face wash with little beads in it or owned a toothpaste with pretty little blue flecks? Did you realize those might actually be tiny pieces of plastic? Have you ever wondered what happens to those little beads when they wash down the drain? The last stop of their journey is usually your own bloodstream and cells, which is the last place one wants plastic to be. These little beads are called microbeads or microplastics, and while they might be great at getting the dead skin off your face, they play an insidious role in the epidemic of plastic waste in our waterways and oceans and plastic toxins affecting our health.

Microplastics are less than five millimeters in size, so they slip through filters at wastewater treatment plants and wind up in the ocean. It is estimated that 8 trillion of these little beads get into the ocean every day. Because of their small size, 96 percent of the world’s biodiversity can potentially ingest them. From the stomach they enter the bloodstream and become part of the cells and tissues of these marine organisms, such as clams, mussels, and fish. The ingestion of the physical piece of plastic is not a huge issue, but the toxins that are within that plastic are more frightening. Plastics contain Persistent Organic Pollutants, or POPs. They do not break down in the bodies of the animals who consume them, so if a fish eats some plastic bead with POPs in them and then a human eats that fish, they have just eaten those harmful chemicals.

POP’s have been linked to behavior abnormalities and birth defects in wildlife, and developmental, behavioral, neurologic, reproductive, and endocrine health problems in humans. I don’t know about you, but I definitely do NOT want to be eating harmful chemicals.
Luckily, the US will have banned microbeads in personal care products and cosmetics by July 2017 and microbead use in over the counter drug products by July 2019. But in the meantime, be a conscious consumer and look for products that have natural exfoliants, like walnut shells, olive pieces, or coffee grounds. It is also possible (and easy) to make your own, with ingredients like coffee grounds, coconut oil and brown sugar. Voila! A delicious-smelling plastic-free scrub!

If you’re having trouble figuring out which personal care product isn’t entirely toxic, you can download the Beat the Microbead app; it’s free and you can scan products and it will tell you if it has microbeads or not. It’s also important to point out that microplastics can come from larger pieces of plastic that have broken down, so whenever you have the option, choose paper over plastic, or, better yet, bring your own bag. Always recycle your plastic products (rinse them first!), and buy a reusable water bottle. The problem of plastics in our oceans and waterways have reached horrific levels (just google “Pacific Garbage Patch”), so being mindful about our plastic use, from beads to bags to bottles, is better for our environment as well as our health.