Don Valley Junior High School (Toronto, ON)
Microbeads a look into the microscopic molecules invading Lake Ontario
The raw material for every product made out of plastic, is a small plastic palette, also known as a nurdle. According to Collins dictionary, nurdles can be defined as “one of a number of small pieces of polyethylene used in cosmetic scrubs and other products”. The main issue with microbeads is the material they’re composed of plastic. Microbeads are primarily found in personal care products, and are used on a regular basis. A tube of face wash can contain over 330 000 microbeads, this means that billions of plastic microbeads are flowing into our waterways. We use microbeads in hopes that they’ll exfoliate our skin by vanishing dead skin cells. Many of us have been tricked into thinking that they would be saviours for our skin, or at least that’s how the big companies portrayed them to be. When in actuality, microbeads do not benefit us, but rather, are a threat to animals and our environment. The formation of microbeads contributes to the plentiful amounts released into our waterways, poses risks to the health of marine life, and pollutes waters with chemicals. The problems presented by nurdles and possible solutions for these violent intruders will be discussed throughout this informal essay.
Plastic microbeads generally range between 5mm or less in size. When we use products containing microbeads, they travel down the drain, are not filtered by wastewater treatment facilities (which are not designed to capture synthetic floating particles), and finally get discharged into oceans, bays, gulfs, and seas worldwide. Out of the 5 Great Lakes, the highest concentration of microbeads was found in Lake Ontario – 1.1 million plastic particles per square kilometre. Their artificial makeup, causes them to not be biodegradable. The beads stay around for centuries and do not break down. Another way microbeads are lost is through transportation.
Microbeads are very light weight, and float on air and water currents easily. If a container ship tipped over, and it was full of nurdles, all the contents would fall into the ocean and all the nurdles would float in our water systems and oceans.
Another issue posed by their minuscule size, is that microbeads are usually mistaken for planktonic food by animals lower down the food chain. Once ingested, plastic particles can pass straight into an animal’s circulatory system and lodge their tissues. When creatures swallow the microbeads, the plastics stick around and are never digested. Since they have a terrible habit of staying in the creature’s stomach, animals are tricked into thinking they’re full, and this leads to starvation, which results in death. When one organism eats another, microbeads and their toxins are passed through the food chain.Toxins like Persistent Bioaccumulating Toxins ( highly dangerous substances), are attracted to the surface of nurdles. Underwater species like fish, inhale/ingest the chemicals from the polluted water, and this further poisons them. A single microbead can be up to a million times more toxic than the water around it. According to the UNEP, microplastics are the most harmful pollutants currently choking the oceans.
9 out of 10 of my interviewees had personal care products which contained microbeads; the most common products being face washes and hand sanitizers. 6/10 of my interviewees had no idea what microplastics were in the first place. Mahzabin Karim took notice of the beads in her hand sanitizer, when asked if she contributed to the issue she responded “I used to wonder what those tiny blue things were in my hand sanitizers, but through research I found out they are microbeads which means I did contribute to this issue. However, after this I had started to reduce the use of these specific hand sanitizers due to the vast impact it has on marine life, ecosystems, etc.”
The next two respondents were competitors in the health & beauty business Olay and Garnier, who use microbeads in a handful of their products. I asked both companies if they would discontinue the use of microbeads, a representative from Garnier replied “We are planning on banning products with microbeads and substituting those beads for natural exfoliants in a near future (2017).” The member from Olay said that they would stop the use of microbeads in 2017, however, she also added these statements “We’ve checked the safety of our beauty and grooming products which may contain microplastics. We can confirm they are safe for both humans and the environment.” Amelia also claimed that microbeads are removed as part of routine wastewater treatment processes, thus they do not pose a risk to marine life.
Finally, while it may seem like plastic microbeads (a.k.a the invaders) have took over our oceans, lakes and oceans, there are still solutions to slow down the production, and use of these non essential beads, which will put a halt to the manufacturing and production of them. If we stop using products with plastic microbeads, the demand goes down and so will the supply. The purchaser should opt for a face wash with natural exfoliants, like coffee beans, dried apricot shells, etc. Citizens can assist efforts to block out nurdles to keep them out of water bodies?
Lastly, the government can permanently ban microbeads from being used. If we take action against the use of microplastics, we will have clearer waterways and this will present a more suitable environment for healthy marine life, thus helping all living creatures, as well as ecosystems.
Fauna & Flora International, Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure & Environment, United Nations Environment Programme, The Bodyshop Foundation, and Neal’s Yard Remedies. “INTERNATIONAL CAMPAIGN AGAINST MICROBEADS IN COSMETICS.” Beat the Microbead. N.p., 2013. Web. 27 Mar. 2016.
Read, Tracey, Dana Winograd, and Julia Leung. “Microbeads.” Plastic Free Seas. N.p., 2013. Web. 21 Mar. 2016.
Cummins, Anna, Marcus Eriksen, Carolynn Box, Lia Colabello, and Haley Jain Haggerstone. “Microbeads.” 5Gyres.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.
Kate Williams, Jon Cocina, Dan LeClair, and Nicole Durivage. “A List of Products That Contain Plastic Microbeads.”Onepercentfortheplanet.org. N.p., n.d. Web.
O’Connor, Mary Catherine. “Inside the Lonely Fight against the Biggest Environmental Problem You’ve Never Heard of.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 27 Oct. 2014. Web. 13 Mar.
Randy Wright, Matt Sheehan, and Richard Drake. “Microbeads Banned for Environmental Hazards.” WUFT News. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.
Karim, Mahzabin Shahana. “Microbeads.” Email interview. 24 Feb. 2016.
“Microbeads in Garnier Products.” Email interview. 25 Feb. 2016.
Amelia. “Use of Microbeads in Olay Products.” Email interview. 9 Mar. 2016.
“The Shocking Impacts of Plastic Pollution in Our Oceans – EIA International.” EIA International The Shocking Impacts of Plastic Pollution in Our Oceans Comments. N.p., 24 May 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2016