Microbeads are tiny plastic beads added to numerous costumer care products, like toothpaste, scrubs and shower gels, for exfoliating power. Most microbeads are made of polyethylene (PE). They are too small to be filtered out by wastewater treatment process and end up in water bodies like rivers and oceans. Here they add to the already big amount of microplastic debris. Small aquatic animals eat microbeads and microplastics, mistaking them for food. From there they are passed on to bigger animals and fish, and eventually to humans when eating shellfish and fish.
The ingestion of microplastics may cause a bioaccumulation of harmful chemicals. These harmful chemicals, like PCB´s (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) and other fat-soluble compounds, stick to microbeads. PCB´s have shown to cause a variety of adverse health effects and are listed as "reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens" by the National Toxicology Program. Long-term exposure to PCBs may have serious effects on the liver, immune system, endocrine system, reproductive system, and thyroid hormone levels, which in turn may affect normal growth and development.
If you want to buy a product that does not contain microbeads then watch out for the following ingredients: polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethyleneterephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and nylon. (a full list of ingredients can be found here). You can also check the full list of products containing microbeads on the website of Beat the Microbead or check if a product has a “Zero Plastic Inside” logo on their packaging.
Do you happen to have a product containing microbeads at home? Don´t wash them down the drain! There are a couple of things you can do:
- Donate them to the 5 Gyres Institute for educational purposes (5 Gyres Institute, 3131 Olympic Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90404).
- Donate them to science (SUNY Fredonia, Attn: Sherri Mason, 280 Central Ave., 340 Sciences Complex, Fredonia, NY 14063).
- Ship them back to the manufacturer. You can find a sample letter to go with your package here.
- Filter out the microbeads yourself using a coffee filter or muslin bag.
- If you really don´t feel like doing all of the above, I guess you can throw them in the original container in the plastics bin for recycling (assuming the original container is also made of plastic). Make sure they end up in the recycling bin, otherwise they end up in a landfill sitting there for hundreds of years!