Microbeads are commonly found in beauty products such as face wash and body scrubs. They are minuscule beads of plastic (ranging between a hundredth of a millimetre to one millimetre in diameter) that are designed to exfoliate the skin through abrasion. However, once they go down the drain, they can end up in waterways and the ocean – often lasting thousands of years.
Recent research has confirmed that microbeads pose a considerable threat to the environment and human drinking water. They form part of the epidemic of single-use plastic that ends up polluting the same water sources from which cities and towns draw water for drinking.
Although microbeads are often invisible, scientists have found them in many water bodies, even in underground aquifers and boreholes. The reason why they pose a risk to human health is that they act as carriers of harmful chemicals. The microbeads absorb dangerous chemicals and bacteria from the water and, when ingested, carry these substances into the human body.
Due to their minute size, microbeads are difficult to remove from water. Filtration only removes the bigger particles, so the microscopic plastic beads pass through filters and make their way to household taps. The best way to tackle microbeads is to stop them at the source of production.
Countries taking action against microbeads
Certain countries have started to tackle the microbead problem. Numerous nations, such as Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Taiwan, have outright banned the production of microbeads in cosmetic products.
In 2018, a new campaign dubbed “Look for the Zero” launched with the aim of ensuring that no plastic is added to beauty products. To date, 57 brands have joined the campaign and have pledged to keep microbeads out of their products.
While South Africa has placed levies on single-use plastics, such as shopping bags, it has yet to ban microbeads. The government is, however, considering a total ban. Once this stage is reached, it will encourage neighbouring African countries to take direct action too. Many South African cosmetic companies have also committed themselves to cease production of microbeads.
Microbeads are cheap and easy to produce
One of the biggest challenges that anti-microbead campaigns face is the cost of producing the particles. Microbeads are cheap and easy produce, meaning that they are an economically-viable solution for many developing countries and smaller cosmetic businesses.
Alternatives to plastic microbeads are more expensive to produce. However, the cosmetic industry is experimenting with natural alternatives such as ground oats, almond shells and coffee grounds. Plastic pollution is a complex problem that will take years to completely solve. The steps taken against microbeads in the past couple of years are positive signs that the right solution will be found.
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