Just a few days ago, the UK’s environment secretary, Michael Gove, finally set in stone the UK’s plan to ban microbeads. The campaign against the presence of microbeads in many widely available and wildly popular products, has been gathering more and more momentum recently- and this ban is its inevitable outcome. If you are wondering what microbeads actually are, and why there’s such a fuss about them, you’re not alone.

What Are Microbeads?

Microbeads are classified as borderline microscopic particles of plastic measuring no larger in size than 5 mm in diameter. More often than not, they are composed of the petrochemical polyethylene, but polypropylene and polystyrene are also common.

What Products Contain Microbeads?

Within the cosmetics industry, microbeads are rife: soaps, shower gels, sunscreens and face washes are all equally guilty of harbouring microbeads. Noted for their exfoliating effect, manufacturers include microbeads because of their ability to shed material from a surface. For face scrub - it’s dead skin, for toothpaste - it’s dental plaque and bits of food. 

Why Are They About To Be Banned?

Many of the products that contain microbeads are designed to be rinsed off and swept away down sinks, showers and baths. From there, they are sent to sewage treatment plants, where they may, or may not, be filtered out and separated. Recent research estimated that, on average, for every square kilometre of the ocean, there are 63,320 microbeads floating at the surface, which does not speak very highly of our filtering processes before they are sent into rivers and oceans.

It is here that microbeads become a menace to marine life. 31 species of marine mammals and over 100 species of sea birds have ingested microbeads - they are easily mistaken as food and the animals have no way of digesting them. As if this wasn’t already harmful enough, microbeads have demonstrated a tendency to absorb toxic chemicals, which runs the risk of entering the food chain - with dire consequences. According to an analysis of fish sold in markets in Indonesia and California, up to a quarter of all fish contain plastic.

Breakdown of UK’s ban

Following in the footsteps of Canada, France and various US states, the UK has confirmed a ban on microbeads. Unlike their predecessors however, the UK has gone one step further, and Greenpeace campaigners have championed the ban as the ‘strongest in the world to date.’ 

Although the specifics are yet to be clarified, the government has made a distinction between rinse-off and leave-on cosmetic products. Makeup and sun cream will be unaffected by the ban, whilst exfoliating scrubs, shower gels and toothpastes containing microbeads will have to be revised and altered.

Is there anything you can do to help?

Aside from painstakingly separating microbeads out of your shower gels, face washes and exfoliating scrubs with a piece of coffee filter paper, a more realistic suggestion is scanning the ingredients of future purchases for mentions of potentially harmful plastics. The ‘Look for the Zero’ campaign mirrors the Fairtrade campaign in that it also distinguishes the more ethical products from the rest with a logo - easy! Beyond that, cutting down on water usage is another way marine life can benefit from your decisions and a highly water-efficient shower pump can help you do just that.

Published by Maria Simpson