You may not have ever heard the term ‘microplastics‘ before, but these tiny particles of plastic are contained in many cosmetic products and land up in the global oceans where they can cause harm to marine life, with unknown effects on humans who then consume seafood. Microplastics are tiny pieces or particles of plastic (many are invisible to the naked eye) which are found in some cosmetics including deodorants, shampoos, sunscreen, baby care products, facial or body scrubs, shower gels and even toothpaste. Microplastics pollute the ocean and can have toxic effects on biological organisms that ingest or absorb them such as dolphins, whales and fish.
UNEP has recently released a report that cautions a precautionary approach toward microplastic management, with an eventual phase-out and ban of their use in personal care products and cosmetics (PCCP). The report makes recommendations for producers and consumers, as well as for researchers and policymakers. Several US states and European countries have now introduced legislation to ban or phase-out microplastics in PCCPs.
The study, entitled Plastic in Cosmetics: Are We Polluting the Environment Through our Personal Care: Plastic ingredients that contribute to marine microplastic litter is a compilation of currently available knowledge on the linkages between cosmetics and plastic pollution in the oceans.
For the last 50 years, microparticles of plastic, called microplastics, have been used in personal care products and cosmetics (PCCP), replacing natural options in a large number of cosmetic and personal care formulations. Washed down the drain, those particles cannot be collected for recycling, nor do they decompose in wastewater treatment facilities, inevitably ending up in the global ocean, where it fragments and remains
According to the UNEP report, over 299 million tonnes of plastic was produced worldwide in 2013 some of which made its way to our oceans, costing approximately US$13 billion per year in environmental damage to marine ecosystems. Once in the ocean, plastic does not go away: it fragments, eventually breaking down into smaller pieces known as secondary microplastics.
A total amount of 4,360 tonnes of microplastic beads was used in 2012 across all European Union countries plus Norway and Switzerland according to a survey by Cosmetics Europe, focusing on the use of microplastic beads, with polyethylene beads representing 93% of the total amount equaling 4,037 tonnes.
In June, 2014, representatives of more than 150 countries, gathered for the first-ever United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), adopted a resolution on marine plastic debris and microplastics, noting with concern the impacts of such materials on the marine environment, fisheries, tourism and development and calling for strengthened action, in particular by addressing such materials at the source.
The resolution tasked UNEP to conduct a worldwide study on microplastic debris in the marine environment, as well as to continue the work toward source reduction and mitigation of their impacts globally.
Tackling the marine litter issue will require companies to work in partnership with all other stakeholders. This includes collaborating with governments to develop effective legislation and waste management infrastructure, especially in developing countries.
How you can get involved in eradicating the use of microplastics and microbeads from cosmetics
While many manufacturers and governments have agreed to ban or phase-out microplastics from their cosmetics, there are still many products that contain microplastics.
There are various ways you can get involved in helping to change the current production of cosmetics containing microplastics, to help create healthier oceans.
Firstly, you can take a look at the cosmetics and personal care products that you use and check whether they contain microplastics – the Beat the Microbead campaign has a useful App that tells you whether certain products contain microbeads. Use your buying power to choose products that are kinder to the environment and oceans and avoid ones that contain microplastics. You can also support this campaign which has the backing of 69 NGOs from 33 countries and help spread information to others about microplastics.
You can ask manufactuers whether they use microplastics in their products and if they do, ask them by when they are planning to ban and phase them out.