Natural alternatives might not be the answer: your guide to microbeads

Many body scrubs contain tiny plastic particles which destroy the environment. Source: Twitter

The US government has passed legislation banning microbeads from all cosmetics by 2018. But how will that affect Australia? Below is your guide to understanding what microbeads are, the alternatives, and where Australia sits in this debate.

The US government has approved a bill banning the sale of cosmetic products containing microbeads, a move that has been applauded by environmentalists the world over.

Microbeads pollute waterways where they destroy marine life.

The US plans to phase out microbead-containing products by 2018.

But will Australia, home to one of the richest marine ecosystems, follow suit?


What are microbeads?

Microbeads are small particles used as exfoliants in body scrubs, soaps, and toothpastes.

In most products, these microbeads are made of unrecyclable plastics.

Senior research associate at the Univeristy of New South Wales, Dr. Mark Anthony Browne, says microbeads are only one source of microplastic pollution, of which clothing fibers are the largest contributor.

"It's just NGOs make more of a fuss about exfoliants." he says.

Clothes particles from laundry grey water, packaging materials, and even larger sheets of plastic that have been broken down into microparticles contribute to this pollution.

These microplastics, which are too small to be caught by most water filters, pollute our waterways and destroy the marine life that calls them home. 

A study estimated 236,000 metric tons of microplastic waste enters the ocean each year; in early 2015, Middle Harbour scientists found 60 to 100 particles of micro debris per 100 millilitres of sediment in the Sydney Harbour.

This is among the highest levels recorded in the world.

Microplastics can also be ingested by fish and the humans that consume them.


So why are microbeads on our shelves in the first place?

Dr. Browne says plastic microbeads came onto the market with good intentions.

"They started out as a way to recycle plastic debris," he says, as an alternative to natural exfoliants like shells and husks.

But a lack of testing for specific environmental effects, he says, has also contributed to why microbead cosmetics have staying in market for so long. 

"These products first hit the market without sufficient testing, and then they discover they cause all these problems, and then it's too late," he says.


Are there environmentally-friendly alternatives to microbeads?

Australia has prevented the use of the petrochemical exfoliants to some extent already.

In 2014, social change group, Do Something, launched a campaign to ban microbeads in the country.

Coles and Woolworths have pledged to pull down all products containing microbeads off their shelves by 2017's end.

Other cosmetics manufacturers like Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, and The Body Shop do sell some products containing microbeads, but are working to find alternative materials.

Many luxury brands, like Lush and Miranda Kerr’s Kora Organics, sell scrubs using nature-based granules.

However, Dr. Browne claims there is is no way to know whether natural alternatives are any better for the environment without sufficient testing.

"Research and testing are important. We're just guessing, really, hoping a natural based exfoliant is better than a synthetic one."

Asbestos, a natural mineral with disasterous health impacts, was used in construction up until the 1980s, and was only banned from all products in December 2003.

"The main scientific question is if we stopping using one thing and shift to another are things going to go away or become worse?" Dr. Brown added.


How can you tell what products have and don't have microbeads in them?

“A lot of exfoliating products don’t specify whether the scrub component contains plastics or not, so it’s up to the consumers to be aware of the issue and try to opt for cosmetics with nut kernel pieces, coffee granules, sugar and so on,” says SBS Online Science Editor Signe Dean.

But it can be hard to tell what products do or don’t contain microbeads.

To help consumers out, the International Campaign Against Microbeads in Cosmetics has compiled list of companies that most likely still use microbeads in their products.

The list can be accessed here.


How far is Australia from banning microbeads for good?

The US’s latest legislative measure against microbeads has been a source of encouragement.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt appeared on ABC’s 7:30 Report, sharing the key to phasing out microbeads will be forming partnerships with industry.

"I have to confess, it's one of those issues which emerged later than it should have," he said

In December 2015, a meeting of Commonwealth, state and territory Environment Ministers announced plans to phase out microbeads by no later than July 2018.

Dr. Browne believes that with better testing policies for consumer products, and frequent analysis of plastic emissions data, microplastic pollution could be a thing of the past.

"Yes, I think we could solve it. We could solve it if we did a couple of things." he says.

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