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Microbeads: What Are They and Why Are They Dangerous?

There are 51 trillion microplastic particles currently polluting the world’s waters. We add to those at the rate of eight million tons each year.

UN projections suggest that if we continue at this pace of plastic disposal by 2050 there could be more plastic in the seas than fish. While its shameful that stretches of sea are troubled by plastic debris, microbeads, which are easily ingested by sea creatures, are an even bigger threat. This serves to explain why they are a matter of real and increasing concern to the eco-community.

Microbeads are tiny plastic objects, smaller than 5mm, found in toothpastes, cosmetics, face washes and the odd shampoo. Worse than just floating pieces of plastic, these beads “act like tiny sponges” by absorbing chemicals and pesticides, which are damaging our marine environments and being consumed by fish and birds.

In Westminster, Holyrood, Halifax and Holland, Governments are getting to grips with the emerging science and turning against the plastic ‘ingredient’. In Scotland the Government has announced plans to legislate against their use and is taking the advice of the Scottish Microplastic Research Group, which is frantically researching the possible consequences. Defra has also consulted on the use of microbeads in cosmetic products. The consultation ended in late February and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Andrea Leadsom, deemed them “incredibly damaging to our sea life”. There is a growing consensus that microbeads are causing major harm and this is paralleled by increasing political will to legislate to eliminate them.

There are realistic alternatives. Neutrogena has committed to phasing out the polyethylene beads in all its products by the end of 2017 and a number of other leading brands have similarly agreed to opt for biodegradable Jojoba beads instead. This natural exfoliant is made from wax, and so while the beads have the same exfoliating effect it’s not as dangerous to send them down the sewers.

It's not just oceans and marine animals that feel the effect of this dangerous waste. The small plastic particles are working their way back up the food chain. Those who consume or prey on small sea creatures absorb the plastic they have ingested (video). Today a plate of six oysters could contain up to 50 pieces of plastic. Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment, noted “Plastic pollution is surfing onto Indonesian beaches, settling onto the ocean floor at the North Pole, and rising through the food chain onto our dinner tables”, and we can’t yet predict the effect.

The UN’s #CleanSeas campaign has set out to tackle plastic overuse in all its forms. Uruguay and Costa Rica have committed to taxing or educating on single-use plastic. Ireland is to ban the sale of all microbead products and Indonesia intends to cuts its marine litter by 70% in the next eight years.

They’re asking people to re-use their plastic bags, to recycle and to rethink their cosmetic choices. So if like me, you’re shocked to discover every time you wash your hands, scrub your skin or brush your teeth 94,500 barely visible plastic dots could be heading for the Forth, head to to double check what’s staring us all in the face.

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