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Green Matter: Beat the Micro Bead!

The discovery of the plastic soup—the huge gyres of plastic waste that pollute the world's oceans—was bad enough. Now, it turns out it's not just the oceans. Last year, an expedition from the 5Gyres Institute found high concentrations of micro beads in the Great Lakes; three weeks ago, Swiss researchers recently reported finding significant concentrations of microplastics in Lake Geneva. "Polystyrene beads were the most common culprits, but hard plastics, plastic membranes, and bits of fishing line were also widespread," the researchers reported.

"Lake water was also shown to contain significant amounts of microplastic contamination - pieces of plastic waste up to 5 millimeters in diameter."

These microplastics in inland bodies of water may well be the main source of microplastic pollution in oceans. Scientists estimate that only around 20% of oceanic microplastics are dumped straight into the sea. The remaining 80% are estimated to originate from land sources, such as waste dumps, street litter and sewage.

One surprising source of microplastics appears to be personal care products, such as toothpaste and facial cleansers that contain plastic micro beads. In the course of the use of these products, the plastic particles are washed down the shower or sink drain into the sewerage system and on to the water treatment plants. Once there, because they are so small, they bypass the filtration systems and end up in the sea; precisely where they do not belong. 

Last year, the Plastic Soup Foundation and the North Sea Foundation launched a campaign called "Beat The Micro Bead" in Europe. It is now supported by around 25 NGOs, forming an international coalition of environmental groups that is calling for a European ban on microplastic particles in personal care products as of Jan. 1, 2014.

In a number of European companies, the campaign has attracted political interest, as well. In the Netherlands, a motion was approved to negotiate with the cosmetics industry about the voluntary elimination of plastic micro beads from their products. Another motion is under way, which will require such products to carry a label stating "contains plastic".

Already, the manufacturers of these products are sitting up and taking notice.

Unilever announced in December 2012 that it would remove all plastic micro beads from its products by 2015.  Colgate-Palmolive, Beiersdorf and L'Oreal have followed suit.

Maria Westerbos of the Plastic Soup Foundation: "This is incredibly encouraging, although we are disappointed neither Beiersdorf nor L'Oreal have provided a phase out date for the micro beads."

And three days ago, Johnson & Johnson announced that they are also phasing out the use of micro beads in all their personal care products.

An iPhone/iPad app has also been developed, which allows consumers to scan the barcodes of personal care products to see whether they contain plastic or not. A red screen means the product contains plastic. Orange indicates that the product contains plastic, but that the producer or store chain has promised to change the product in the nearby future.

Plastics industries around the world have long expressed frustration at the lack of recognition by the public for their contribution to sustainability developments. They strive to get the message across that plastics are valuable and versatile materials that offer benefits and advantages in key areas, such as mobility, health and safety. Uniquely, plastics can be manufactured to meet very specific functional needs for consumers. Plastics are the materials of choice for designers seeking to maximize energy efficiency, durability and performance. Public perception of plastics, however, remains overwhelmingly negative, mainly because of the problems that arise when it gets into the environment.

So why are we manufacturing micro beads that are designed to be washed down the drain?

It's great that the major manufacturers of products containing these beads are taking the problem seriously. Who would have thought?

But personally, it seems to me that those in the industry should take some of that responsibility, as well. It's time to show the public that this is an industry that really does walk the walk. Talk about an image booster!

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