Those gritty bits in our body wash and face scrub are a problem, and we've known it for a long time. Finally, it's looking like the UK might be able to ban one of the biggest ocean pollutants - and one that, actually, could be relatively easy to get rid of. Microbeads need to stop.
The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee put out a report on 24 August on the environmental impact of micro plastics. The inquiry started in March and has looked at a range of evidence. The conclusion: the UK needs to place a legal, national ban on the use of microbeads in cosmetic products by the end of 2017. At the very least, companies need to clearly label products where plastic is being used as an ingredient so when us everyday consumers go to buy body wash we can purchase in confidence that we're not washing up to 100,000 particles into the ocean each time we shower.
Microbeads are tiny, toxic, and in the UK alone we've been dumping 680 tonnes of these non-biodegradable beads into the oceans each year.
Because they're made from certain polymers they can't be recycled - even if they were large enough to actually see in order to make the decision to recycle. They're largely under 3mm in size and can't be seen with the naked eye. They fall into the category of microplastics, small particles of plastic that have been broken down from wear and tear or are produced tiny. Microplastics make up about 92% of the staggering 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the water today. That weighs in at 268,940 tonnes.
Plastic microbeads can also become highly toxic because they soak up long last pollutants and chemicals like pesticides and motor oil. This means that not only do we have marine and freshwater animals eating plastic that their bodies can't digest - and we've all seen plenty of pictures of fish and seabirds whose stomachs are filled with this waste - they're eating poisons. It doesn't take an inquiry to tell us that's not a good thing for them, for us, or for the planet.
This pollution is getting into our food chain. "If you've eaten six oysters, you'll have consumed 50 particles of micro plastic," the report puts forward. Oysters may not be your thing, but if you eat fish, sushi, or anything that comes from the ocean in particular, you could be eating small, toxic bits of plastic.
The microbead conversation has been going on for years and people are actively asking governments to step in and make changes.
The UK environmental audit comes after over 10,000 people signed a parliamentary petition to ban microbeads and over 300,000 people signed a Greenpeace petition asking for a UK ban.
It's also over a year after a ban on microbeads was recommended by the United Nations Environment Programme on 8 June, World Oceans Day. Like the UN report, the Committee's chair, Mary Creagh MP, notes the need for a "a full legal ban, preferably at an international level as pollution does not respect borders." And there is definitely an international movement starting.
From July 2017, the United States is banning microbeads measuring 5mm or less from "personal care products," which includes cosmetics and over-the-counter drugs, under a law to protect waterways. On June 17, Canada labelled microbeads as a toxic substance, a first important step to moving to the ban. France is placing a ban on microbeads from rinse-off products in January 2018, and Australia initiated a voluntary phase-out in 2014 that will be enforced by legislative action next year if things aren't on track. In January the Swedish chemical agency Kemi called for a ban of use in rinse-off products, and the Danish environment and food minister is putting on pressure to "limit the spread of microplastics so that it does not end up in the aquatic environment and in the food chain".
And, in the words of the UK Committee Chair, "The best way to reduce this pollution is to prevent plastic being flushed into the sea in the first place."
You can help just by checking the ingredients on products before you buy or use them.
Although a lot of UK cosmetic companies have agreed voluntarily to phase out microbeads by 2020, that's four years away. That's 272 tonnes of miniature plastic beads going into our oceans, and it's also no guarantee that all companies will have phased them out by then. Even countries with a target of 2017 will be contributing to the pollution problem significantly if they just wait for companies to get their act together.
So veto products that use microbeads. If you stop buying the products, companies will need to come up with alternative products using ingredients people want to buy - ingredients that will be better for you, animals and plants, and the planet.
It's not only a problem in the more obvious culprits like scrubs and shower gels, but also toothpastes, moisturisers, shaving products, make up and sun care. Look out for ingredients like polyethylene, polytetrafluoroethylene, nylon-12, polymethyl methacrylate, nylon-6, polyethylene terephthalate and nylon-66. Don't let marketing ploys, like using the word 'natural,' fool you.
The Beat the Microbead Organisation have put together great guides to some major cosmetic products by country, flagging the real problem products and those that are more environmentally friendly. It's not exhaustive and it's always worth double-checking what you use, but this is a brilliant starting point.
If you're a bit of a DIY person, you may also like to try making your own alternatives. At CPN we're hoping to get a little crafty in the future and share our skin care experiments with you, but in the meantime you can find some info and recipes from Crunchy Moose or get some tips from Lauren Singer on her blog Trash is for Tossers.