By Eleanor

What’s worse: letting a plastic bag fly away into the ocean, or washing your face?

Everyone I know, and hopefully everyone you know, would chase after a plastic bag if it blew away. We do this because we know plastic in the ocean is bad, and littering is illegal in Australia, and anyway, beaches covered in rubbish aren’t very nice to be on.

Jakarta Post / Agung Parameswara
Jakarta Post / Agung Parameswara

But letting a plastic bag fly into the ocean might not be as bad for the environment as washing your face every day, if your product of choice happens to contain microbeads.

Polluting, sorry, no, "energising" microbeads
Polluting, sorry, no, “energising” microbeads

Microbeads are tiny little balls of plastic that are put in exfoliating facial scrubs, body washes, toothpastes and household cleaning products. They’re designed to be rinsed off and washed down the drain. From the drain, they end up in sewage treatment plants, but not all of them get captured, so the rest go into waterways and oceans.

Last week, a group of scientists published an opinion piece in which they estimate that every day, eight trillion microbeads enter waterways in the U.S.

This is a problem because microbeads have two alarming properties:

  1. they absorb pollutants like motor oil and pesticides
  2. they look like fish food, because they’re about the same size as tiny sea creatures that fish like to eat

This means that fish eat these little bits of plastic that have absorbed all these toxins… then bigger fish eat lots of the little fish… and really big fish eat lots of those fish… and then humans eat the really big fish.

Steve Greenberg
Steve Greenberg

The scientists who wrote the article called for a ban on microbeads:

“The probability of risk from microbead pollution is high while the solution to this problem is simple. Banning microbeads from products that enter wastewater will ultimately protect water quality, wildlife, and resources used by people.”

The good news is that a handful of U.S. states are already starting to ban microbeads. More good news is that some companies are taking notice, and avoiding the use of microbeads even without a ban.

I’ve been trying to reduce the amount of plastic I use for a while, but I kept my head in the sand about my toothpaste. So after reading the article, I spent about 30 seconds googling to see if my toothpaste of choice contains microbeads. The company website states:

“Some groups have raised concerns regarding the potential contribution of microbeads to pollution of the world’s oceans. Recognizing that consumers have questions, as of year-end 2014 we are no longer using this ingredient.”

Great! I can brush my teeth guilt-free! I’m quite pleased to see that consumer concern and public dialogue is putting pressure on companies to avoid microbeads.

Let’s keep this up. By talking about it, and by avoid buying stuff containing microbeads, it seems that companies and governments will get the message!

If you really like those exfoliating face-washes though, don’t worry – there are alternatives! Some products contain crushed up walnut or apricot shells, or even sea salt, for exfoliation without the pollution.

P.S. For more information on the issues around plastic getting into the oceans, check out some of the other posts on this blog on the same subject.

P.P.S. A colleague came into my office as I was writing this post, and told me how they had run over their letterbox this morning because they forgot to put the handbrake on when they got out of their car to pick up a plastic bag. So people, pick up plastic and don’t forget the handbrake!