Plastic granules by maldeseine. source: wikimedia.commons

Since their first synthesis in 1907, humans have been reliant on plastics, and it is no secret that in the 21st century they make up a huge part of our everyday lives. One of the main reasons for the success of plastics is that they are hugely versatile, and come in many different forms. These include PET (for use in plastic bottles), PE (Polyethylene used in plastic bags), PP, HIPS, ABS, HDPE, and the list goes on. Depending on their intended use, plastics can be given a whole host of different properties; they can be brittle or flexible, transparent or opaque, heat resistant or easy-to-melt, and high or low density. There are even plastics that can be moulded in your hands, or that can ‘heal’ themselves if ripped.

Plastic bottles. source:

However, our addiction to plastics is causing some serious problems for the environment. The vast majority of plastics in use today are non-biodegradable, and so they will not break down. It has been estimated that up to 40% of plastics that are not recycled or reprocessed end up in the oceans – this is over 8 million tonnes of plastic added to the oceans every year. And because the plastics do not break down, they simply build up. You have undoubtedly heard of the ocean referred to by some as a ‘plastic soup’. This is because plastics in the oceans and constantly being broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, until they are too small to be spotted.


This means that many plastics in the oceans now exist as tiny particles that are incredibly difficult to reclaim. What’s worse is the fact that once the particles become small enough, they can be ingested by any number of sea-dwelling creatures. They are an ecological nightmare. And ironically, in addition to being created when larger plastics break down, we are adding billions of these tiny plastic particles into the oceans ourselves every day. These particles are found in shower gels, face scrubs, and exfoliating creams, and it is likely that half of the products on your shelves contain them. They are known as microbeads.

‘initially, the little beads did a lot of good.’

In 1976, Norwegian Professor John Ugelstad patented his procedure for the production of spherical polystyrene globules of uniform size. This was the birth of the microbead. Initially, the little beads did a lot of good. The technique for their production was new and exciting, the beads had a whole host of uses, the most notable of which is a method for cancer treatment.

It would have been difficult to forsee that just 40 years after the release of the patent, countries would begin to ban Ugelstad’s invention. The problems began when microbeads were picked up by the cosmetic industry. It was found that they are an excellent exfoliator, and they were soon added to creams, toothpastes and body washes in place of biodegradable exfoliators such as salt crystals. They are incredibly popular nowadays, and the majority

Toothbrush with toothpaste by William Warby. source:wikimedia.commons
Toothbrush with toothpaste by William Warby. source:wikimedia.commons

of cosmetics that are described as ‘exfoliating’ contain tiny beads of polyethene or polypropylene. In fact, it is estimated that on average, 2.4mg of plastics are released into the oceans per person every day, purely from such consumer goods. This might seem to be a small number, but it translates to a huge number of microbeads. A single shower can release hundreds of thousands of microbeads into the ocean. A microbead is defined as a plastic globule with a diameter of less than 5mm across, but in the cosmetics industry, these beads are usually much smaller, with a diameter of under 1mm.

The tiny size of these beads means that once they are used and washed down the drain, are too small to be filtered out at water recycling and treatment centres, and are therefore released either directly into the oceans, or straight back into your drinking water. If released into the oceans, they can break down further as a result of wave power, and exposure to UV radiation. In fact, they can become so small that species such as plankton often mistake them for food. The microbeads build up inside the plankton, and when eaten by the next animal up in the food chain, for example fish, they already contain a large number of microbeads.

Phytoplankton. source:
Phytoplankton. source:

With every level up in the food chain, the concentration of plastics in the organism increases. A recent study shows that over 267 species of marine organism have been affected by plastic pollution, and that the plastics have worked their way up the food chain to the extent that 44% of sea birds were found to have plastics in their stomachs from the fish that they ate. Alarmingly, even fish caught for human consumption is often found to contain plastics of alarmingly high concentrations.

However, the plastic itself is not the most dangerous thing about the buildup of microbeads; the worrying thing is the toxins that the beads attract. Microbeads, like most plastics, tend to ‘soak up’ any toxic chemicals that surround them, turning the plastic itself toxic. Scientists have been focussing on a particular class of pollutants called PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), that are linked to neurological problems, decreased immune function, and a reduction in fertility in humans. A recent experiment using rainbow trout found that when the fish eat microbeads that have been exposed to PBDEs, 12.5% of the PBDEs initially on the microbeads end up leaching into the tissue of the fish itself.

Pentabromodiphenyl ether. source: wikimedia.commons
Pentabromodiphenyl ether. source: wikimedia.commons

Needless to say, the use of microbeads is a problem that requires immediate action. Many countries have now announced plans to phase out microbeads, or have banned them altogether, issuing sanctions for companies that continue to use microbeads in their products. The UK government, following suit, has issued a ban on microbeads in cosmetics and cleaning products by 2017.

‘All that is needed is to avoid products containing microbeads; this is any product that contains polyethylene or polypropylene.’

However, 2017 is still a while away, and if you want to help avert the microbead crisis, it is very easy to do. All that is needed is to avoid products containing microbeads; this is any product that contains polyethylene or polypropylene. There are plenty of equally good products out there that do not use plastics as their exfoliators. There has even been an app released that allows users to scan the barcode of their product, and find out instantly if it contains microbeads!

For now, microbeads are hugely popular, and are causing chaos in the environment. Luckily, they are easy to avoid, and as awareness increases and bans are put into place, it is hoped that pollution levels will reduce and the clean-up of the oceans can begin.

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