Microbeads (often labelled as ‘polyethylene’ on product labels) are used in some personal care products such as facial scrubs, cleansers and toothpaste. These particles are not retained by wastewater treatment so end up in the ocean. While microbeads aren’t thought to be a health hazard to consumers, they are a threat to the marine environment.
As microbeads (plastic pieces of less than one millimetre diameter) are indistinguishable from plankton the potential for ingestion by tiny crustaceans is significant. If these creatures ingest them and are eaten by other larger creatures and so on, microbeads can travel up the food chain. And, because polyethylene is well known for absorbing toxins, these toxins could also end up in the seafood we eat like shellfish, white fish and tuna.
The three main sources of microbeads in marine environments are:
1) consumer products such as cosmetics
2) breakdown of larger plastic material
3) the shedding of synthetic fibres from textiles by domestic clothes washing.
To reduce the amount of microbeads getting into our waterways:
- Avoid personal care products containing polyethylene – see here for a list of products to avoid and here for a list of microbead-free goods. Find out more at www.beatthemicrobead.org
- Avoid clothing made from synthetic fibres, especially polyester, which sheds hundreds of microscopic fibres when washed
- Keep plastics, such as plastic bags and bottles, out of waterways