Featured Image Credit:5Gyres via Oregon State University
Microbeads. You know…those tiny beads that are found in your everyday face wash and those exfoliators that you spend a lot of money on? Right, those little guys are called microbeads and they’ve been making major headlines when it comes to ocean conservation. It seems like more energy has been spent on those little guys than the giant floating islands of trash in the Pacific Ocean.
Lately, it’s been discovered that microbeads are not the culprit they’ve been made out to be. So we’ve taken it upon ourselves to clear the air (or water) and break down the cold, hard (plastic) facts. We talk a lot about marine debris and we’d like to see energy spent on literally the bigger problems.
First things first: let’s define what we are actually talking about. You may have heard several different terms being tossed around: microbeads AND microplastics. What’s the difference? Well, let’s think of the principle: an apple is a fruit, but not all fruits are apples. In this case, microbeads are apples and microplastics are fruits.
Confused? No worries, we’ll explain.
By definition, microbeads are the solid, plastic particles that are intentionally added to products. Microplastics, however, encompass a much broader range of ALL micro-sized solid, plastic litter found in the ocean and waterways. By far the biggest sources of microplastics are larger pieces of plastic material, like packaging, cigarette filters, tires, or synthetic fabric, that shed or eventually break down into tiny pieces over time. Basically a microbead is a microplastic, but most microplastics are not microbeads.
Still with us?
It is very important to note that both contribute to marine debris, but on immensely different scales. According to a study reported in the SOFW Journal, for example, microbeads contribute to only 0.1-1.5% of all marine litter. While it’s still litter…it really is miniscule. Further research conducted in the U.S and Europe also shows that wastewater treatment plants can remove up to 99% of all microbead litter.
So let’s be honest for a second…you’re not going to see a whale or sea turtle endangerment case caused by microbeads.
On the other hand, the contribution of those big hunks of plastic – Macroplastics — is hundreds of times greater than microbeads. From car tires and plastic bags, to discarded fishing gear and trashed textile fibers… these items have widely contributed to the 5.25 TRILLION pieces of macroplastic floating in the ocean.
These larger plastic items that break down into microplastics ARE the major perpetrators in the marine debris epidemic.
If today you must decide how to start eliminating plastic from your daily life, we recommend using an aluminum bottle instead of buying endless cases of wasteful plastic water bottles. We must also ask that you make the conscious choice of choosing reusable grocery bags. It’s really that easy. Just keep a stash in your trunk.
And if you’re still worried, the personal care industry is already working on more environmentally-neutral alternatives for microbeads. As a commitment to their consumers, but more importantly as a commitment to ocean conservation, the industry responded forcefully and has been actively working with environmental advocacy groups to eliminate the use of plastic microbeads.
Such proactive partnerships even spawned The Microbead-Free Waters Act that President Obama signed into law in 2015. This effort earned them major kudos in our book. After all, they’re single-handedly adjusting their own industry for the future of the ocean.
You might be wondering, “What does this mean for my favorite face wash?” According to section 2 of the bill, “rinse-off cosmetics containing intentionally added plastic microbeads will be officially banned January 1st, 2018.” Don’t sigh, this really is positive. Most likely, companies will opt to replace microbeads with alternatives like beeswax, rice bran, jojoba waxes, tapioca, seaweed and other natural compounds instead of erasing their current product line-up. So we’re saying there is still a chance for your precious products.
Deep breath. We’ll be fine.
Our suggestion is: put things in perspective. There are actual ISLANDS of marine debris floating in the ocean. Seriously—islands. And we waste energy when we focus island-sized amounts of attention or resources on a microscopic issue. Gill nets and fishing lines are a much bigger threat (literally and figuratively) in every way for marine life. Microbeads don’t get a pass, but let’s put our efforts in the right place.