Microbeads Causing Macro Problems for the Environment; Bans Being Enacted

By: | September 29th, 2015

Microbeads may make your skin feel silky after exfoliation, but they’re wreaking havoc on the environment. In response, locales far and wide are banning them from cosmetics. But fret not; there are effective and eco-friendly natural alternatives.

What are microbeads, anyway?

Microbeads are made of polyethylene or polypropylene microspheres, like plastic grains of sand, which are frequently added to personal care products as a scrubbing grit. The term microsphere denotes a bead of fewer than 5 millimeters though most are around 1 millimeter in size. In recent years, they have become a popular additive to facial scrubs, body washes, and toothpastes.

Some estimates indicate there may be more than 300,000 of the tiny beads in a typical cosmetic product. As you wash, the tiny beads scrub off grime and dead skin cells, leaving your skin feeling silky and your teeth pearly white.

But since plastic is not biodegradable, where do the tiny beads go once we send them down the drain?

So what’s the big problem with the little beads?

The problem is that they never really “go away.” They just keep circulating through the environment. Even water treatment facilities can’t filter them out, and they end up being flushed into our oceans and lakes and even ingested by fish and other sea life. Anything that eats fish – think humans and birds – can be subjected to the pollution as it travels through the food chain. A new study out of Australia found that nine of ten seabirds had plastic in their gut.

Six U.S. states and four European countries have “banned the bead” thus far, but others are taking various steps to phase them out. A few U.S. Congressional leaders are supporting legislation for a federal ban.

Right now, the Great Lakes are struggling with an over-abundance of the pesky spheres and states in the region are debating a plan of action. Adding fuel to the argument in favor of a ban is a study done by the University of Wisconsin-Superior that found concentrations of 1500 to 1.7 million of the particles per square mile.

Meanwhile, Canada has taken charge from their side of the Great Lakes and declared microbeads to be a “toxic substance.” They are working to enact legislation to block the manufacture, import, and sale of products containing the beads.

But what’s a body to do?

Many companies are taking note of the passionate consumer flack around the copiousness of the tiny beads in the environment and have begun to seek more eco-friendly alternatives on their own. Others still resist giving up the popular products and may need public nudging. After all, there are many other means to the end that will result in skin equally as silky and squeaky clean.

Just about anything gritty will act as a scrub or exfoliant. Alternatives such as ground nut shells and fruit pits will work. You can even exfoliate by adding sugar or oats to your face scrub or body wash.¬†And don’t forget about the old standard, loofah sponge, which is actually a squash. Your personal hygiene needn’t create toxic waste for our environment when there are so many other options.

Plastics, in general, have become a pervasive problem by default, with such nightmare scenarios as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an ocean gyre of circulating plastics that refuse to degrade. Deliberately adding minute beads of plastic to our waterways and oceans is adding insult to environmental injury.

Perhaps we should all adhere to the adage that reminds us, “We don’t inherit the Earth from our elders; we borrow it from our children.” How will we explain to them why we left them such a mess?

Ban the Bead Facial Scrub Recipe

Start with a base: olive oil, coconut oil, almond oil, aloe, honey, citrus juice or smashed fruit such as tomato or papaya, coffee, or a favorite lotion

Add grit: grits (literally!), oats, cornmeal, sugar, coffee grounds, ground nuts

Make it smell nice: Add a couple of drops of a favorite essential oil such as lavender or rose or grind up the petals, or even use rosemary and citronella or other strong herbs for a bug-repelling potion

Mix ingredients together, apply to your face and gently massage in a circular motion. Rinse with water and your skin will be silky smooth!

Carol Mosley is a social ecologist, freelance writer, human rights activist, mini-farmer, and educator.

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