Microplastic are small plastic pieces or fibers measuring less than 5mm. In personal care products they are almost always smaller than 1mm. They can also come from other, indirect sources: plastic waste into the ocean, due to the effects of weathering, sunlight and wave action, reduces to smaller particles and does not biodegrade.
But why do hundreds, if not thousands of different personal care products use microbeads as abrasive scrubbers and for cleaning when traditional, fast-degradable alternatives such as ground nut shells and salt crystals exists? When these products are washed down the drain after use, the microbeads are too small to be retained by filters at sewage plants and end up in rivers, canals, and ultimately into the seas and oceans. This has negative impact to marine biodiversity and associated implications for human health: marine species are unable to distinguish between food and microplastics and therefore indiscriminately feed on microplastics. Some species of fish excrete plastic easily, but others do not and accumulate plastic internally.
The surface of microplastics have been proven to attract and absorb persistent organic pollutants (POPs) from the marine environment. Traces of POPs for instance were found in birds, ingested together with their plastic hosts. Scientists hypothesis that over time, POPs will start accumulating in the food chain, transferring from species to species, with consequences ultimately for humans.
These observations led to the Dutch campaigned Beat the Microbead. This campaign now extended to many other countries. And in november 2012 they launched a smartphone app to help consumers. The app allows consumers to scan the barcodes of personal care products and to see which one contains microplastics. It has a 3 color-code:
- green means that the product is completely free from plastic.
- Orange, that the product contains plastic but the manufacturer has made a public commitment to phase out microbead in the future.
- Red means that not only the product contains plastic, but that there is no future plan to eliminate it from the product.
Throughout the campaigns producers have been asked to stop adding microplastics to cosmetics, and many have responded positively. If you don’t own a smartphone you can still access the list of products in your country on the Beat the Microbead Website.
Useful link: http://beatthemicrobead.org/en/