Microbeads pollution – a drop in the ocean for the beauty industry

The threat plastic pollution poses to marine wildlife is now a recognised issue amongst consumers, businesses and governments, but is the damage from microplastics, found in many beauty products, a problem literally being washed down the drain? Leigh Stringer investigates

As the name suggests, microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic, ranging from around 5mm in size down to the microscopic that are almost impossible to clean up once they enter the ocean.

Used in many personal care and beauty products such as facial exfoliators and body scrubs, the beads, once washed down the drain, are too small to filter out during wastewater treatment processes and invariably end up in the sea.

Once there, microbeads can become embedded in marine habitats, altering the properties of these environments, and are also eaten by marine fauna particularly filter feeders such as mussels, causing circulatory and digestive blockages, malnutrition and even starvation.

While consumers remain fairly unaware of the damage caused by microbeads, the beauty product industry is beginning to wake up to the issue. Some of the multinationals who own the most widely-used face and body scrub brands are publicly committing to phasing out microbeads.

After Unilever, who owns brands such as Dove and Radox, announced in December 2012 that all of its products worldwide would be plastic free by 2015, other multinationals started following suit.

Nivea owner Beiersdorf and L’Oréal said they would stop the use of microbeads, while Gillette and Olay owner Procter & Gamble agreed that its products would be free from microbeads by 2017 at the earliest.

Major health care company Johnson & Johnson said it has already started phasing out microbeads and was no longer developing products containing them. Some of these companies, however, such as L’Oréal and Beiersdorf, have not provided a date for when their products would be truly free from microbeads.

A L’Oreal spokesperson told edie: “Since 1995, L’Oréal has had a research laboratory dedicated to assessing the impact of its formulae on aquatic eco-systems. L’Oreal has decided to address the concerns about plastic microbeads and to eliminate their use as exfoliant in scrubs.”

Also getting involved in the commitment is Estee Lauder, who said that it was aware of the concerns around microbeads contributing to marine litter. According to a spokesperson, Estee Lauder is currently in the process of removing microbeads in the “small number of our products that currently contain them”.

But who’s creating this step-change? Well, like many of these issues it is largely coming from campaign groups such as the international conservation organisation Fauna & Flora International (FFI).

FFI is calling on those using microbeads in their products to replace them with natural alternatives, which FFI’s marine plastics officer Tanya Cox says is seeing an encouraging level of support from the major players in the industry.

Through its ‘Good Scrub Guide’, which lists products that do not use microbeads in their products, the organisation is seeing more and more multi-nationals sign up to the pledge and begin to look at natural alternatives.

Cox says: “We are encouraging businesses, especially forward-thinking businesses with strong CSR policies, to question what is going in their products, including ingredients and chemicals, and questioning what impact they are likely to be having as well”.

Despite the positive action from large companies, there are still many manufacturers who haven’t committed to replacing microbeads with naturally biodegradable alternatives and these are who organisations like the FFI are now focusing their attention.

Cox says: “Interestingly, the people we’ve spoken to within the industry tend to tell us that they are very much driven by the decisions of these big multi-nationals. So hopefully with public commitment from the big companies, the smaller or more independent companies will also start following suit”.

With the issue being addressed by some of the major industry players, there remains a challenge around consumer education, which will predominately start by these companies phasing out microbeads and eliminating choice. However, the process could be hurried if consumers make sustainable decisions when choosing these products, which would actually force corporations to assess their product ingredients.

Science could help overcome this challenge, as although there is growing evidence on the impact these beads are having on the marine environment and the associated biodiversity, there could be human health impacts.

According to FFI’s fellow campaign group Beat the Microbeads, because sea creatures absorb or eat microbeads they are passed along the marine food chain.

“Since humans are ultimately at the top of this food chain, it is likely that we are also absorbing microbeads from the food we eat,” the group states on its website. However, Cox says that the results of these studies are still pending.

In the absence of any proven link to the human health implications the FFI and Beat the Microbeads are focusing on the marine biodiversity impact, and recognising that there are alternatives Cox says it’s an easy problem to fix.

One example is Unilever owned facial scrub company St Ives who uses crushed walnuts as exfoliates instead of plastic microbeads. Others are using strawberry seeds and bamboo as alternatives to plastic.

The issue has once again brought negative attention to the impact of beauty products and, historically, beauty companies have received criticism for unethical and non-environmentally friendly business practices such as unsustainable sourcing, chemical pollution and animal testing.

However, as these companies become more educated on sustainability issues such as this, and with pressure growing from consumers and environmental groups, the industry is in a good position to continue in its efforts to clean up its act and make some significant changes over the coming years.

Leigh Stringer is edie energy and sustainability editor

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