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How Tiny Balls are Causing Big Issues with the Environment

Anna Ellam

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In recent years, much has been done to tackle the problem of plastic bags and the general issue of plastics polluting our environment and impacting on nature.  The plastic bag charge and more effective recycling facilities are big steps towards improving things, but now, another plastic related issue has raised its head, and it is one which many people may still be unaware of; that of micoplastics.

Microplastics are minute balls of plastic that are found in cosmetic and hygiene products and are defined as plastic pieces or plastic fibres measuring less than 5 mm, although the microbeads found in personal care products can be as small or smaller than 1mm.

But what’s the problem?  The problem arises when these products are washed down the drain.  The microbeads are so tiny that they pass through our waste water sewer systems and make their way into rivers and on into the sea, where they are consumed by marine life and ultimately enter our food chain.  A statistic from the BBC states that ‘a plate of 6 oysters can contain up to 50 particles of plastics’.

Fortunately, there is already quite a lot being done to raise awareness and tackle the issues arising with these microplastics.  Earlier this year the Government announced plans to completely ban their use in all cosmetics and cleaning products with consultation as to how this will be rolled out and achieved starting very soon.

But although steps are being taken, how many of us realise that we’re actually contributing to the problem? Personal care products such as exfoliating scrubs and toothpastes can contain thousands of these minute balls of plastic.  Many of us might not even realise that we’re part of the problem as traditionally these types of products have used biodegradable particles such as ground nut shells and salt crystals, but more and more often plastic is being used as an alternative.

Fortunately, the surface water treatment process, which provides our drinking water, has a number of stages of treatment and filtration and generally has the capacity to capture extremely small particles.  it is usual that their systems already filter out particles smaller than the microbeads therefore preventing the problem occurring with our drinking water. 

It is the waste water from our homes that is causing the problem.  Stemming the flow of microplastics that are washed down our sinks, showers and baths is a challenge for our waste water treatment plants as the standard filters are not currently designed to retain such small particles.  Existing filtration systems filter out more and more plastics as they go through the various phases of the system but the very smallest of particles can still find their way through.    

New technologies in filtration are being considered and researched, but these are expensive and have their own maintenance issues.  The easiest solution of all is to tackle the problem at the source.  To stop buying products containing microbeads and to support the movement to ban their inclusion in products in the first place.

A number of large companies have already made a pledge to phase out their use and along with the Government’s commitment to ban their inclusion in cosmetic and cleaning products are huge steps towards a longer lasting solution.

But in the meantime there are still things we can do to help.  When buying your products look at the list of ingredients.  Look out for polyethylene, polypropylene and polymethylmethacrylate which are the chemical names for plastics. Nylon may also be listed as well as the abbreviations PET, PTFE and PMMA.  And if the product contains any of these ingredients then just don’t buy it.

There is also a fantastic website called Beat the Microbead which is leading the campaign against their use and where you can find lists of products which do and do not include plastic.  It also provides a free app which you can download and use to scan barcodes and check ingredients.  So why not download it now and take steps to help stop the problem.