For some years now, the seemingly innocent daily washing routine has been hiding a more sinister aspect: plastic pollutants. Barack Obama’s ban on products containing micro-beads has finally shone a light on the hidden disastrous effects their use can lead to.
Micro-beads are a common method of exfoliation. They are used in cosmetics, toothpaste, cleaning products, and body and face-wash. They are smooth, spherical beads of plastic designed to remove dry cells from a surface. With such a wide use and popular purpose it is difficult to see how harmful these are for the environment but the truth is devastating because these beads are non-biodegradable. We can’t do anything to break them down and the problem is increasing.
The beads are designed to be washed down the sink by water. However, because they are usually less than two millimetres wide, filters in water treatment works do not catch them. Streams and rivers then transport them to the sea contributing to escalating ocean pollution. Once in the sea, the micro-beads are consumed by fish, turtles, sea birds and other marine life, causing health complications.
Now, you may think that there are more important issues to worry about, but in fact these beads affect the entire food chain. The micro-beads will, while in the sea, soak up pollutants such as those in heavy metals and oils that we have let run into the water. Then, when a fish finds and eats these tasty looking beads, the toxins enter its digestive system. This problem becomes far worse when we catch the fish ourselves, and consume the harmful chemicals it contains.
The sad and cynical fact is that there are natural alternatives that are more effective: sugar, sea salt and nut shells are all practical and reach the desired need for smooth skin. But these are more expensive, so manufacturers steer clear of them. It is all about the profits, not the environment.
Unlike the natural exfoliators, micro-beads have a totally smooth surface, causing them to be ineffective if not used excessively. While lethal to the marine well-being, this smoothness is perfect for salespeople – the smoother it is, the more people will need to use and buy them. Again, we see profits overtaking the environment in priority.
Eight trillion micro-beads are currently being distributed in the oceans every day, enough to cover 300 tennis courts. We need to do something drastic. By following Obama’s lead, David Cameron also should be prohibiting these plastic pollutants.
The Canadian and Australian governments have started banning products containing micro-beads. Also, the pharmaceutical giant Johnson and Johnson vowed to end the use by 2017. However, this is all happening too late and the government needs to act on the plastic pollution issue now.
The literal invisibility of the beads makes it very easy for us to continue ignoring this issue. However, if we continue as we are, then the world will be wrecked by 2050, or earlier. This problem needs to be tackled now before sandy beaches are ruined and snorkelers struggle to find marine life to witness.
-- Izzy King is a student at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds