Instant expert

Instant expert: Microplastics

Getting into the nitty-gritty of a tiny additive, that is having catastrophic consequences.


Credit: Joe Dowling, Sustainable Coastlines Marine Photobank

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What are microplastics?

Microplastics, or microbeads, are small fragments of plastic widely used in cosmetics, skin care products and household cleaners.

Over the years, microplastics have gradually replaced traditional exfoliants and scrubs such as oatmeal, ground nut shells and salt crystals.

Research estimates that a whopping 1,147 personal cleansing products contain microplastics – which measure less than 5mm and are hardly visible to the naked eye – and each tube of product can contain more than 330,000 teeny tiny particles of plastic.

Why are they an environmental problem?

Products containing microplastics are almost always rinsed away with water, and because they’re small enough to slip through sewerage systems, microplastics float down the drain into our waterways and oceans. Here, they attract and collect pollutants and are consumed by marine life, including the fish we
harvest for food.

“Microplastics have the potential to affect organisms ranging from plankton and small fish to larger animals such as dolphins and whales,” says Santiago Mejia Acosta from the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

Microplastics are found in bays, gulfs and seas worldwide. In Australia, it’s estimated that each square kilometre of sea surface water is contaminated by about 4,000 pieces of tiny plastics. A report by the Sydney Institute of Marine Science found the worst affected areas of Middle Harbour are choked with up to 60 microplastics per 100 milligrams of sediment. Acosta says research is continuing as the full effects on the health of wildlife are still unknown.

What’s being done about it?

Calls for a global phase-out of microplastics used in personal care products are gaining pace. In Australia, the NSW Environment Minister Rob Stokes has called for a national ban on microbeads and will lead an industry group to discuss a voluntary phase-out by 2016. Personal care multinationals Unilever and L’Oreal Australia have announced they will phase out microplastics in personal care products by 2015 and 2017 respectively.

In the US, Illinois and New Jersey have banned the sale of microplastics in personal care products, and Wisconsin is considering a similar ban. Lead by leaders in the Netherlands, European politicians are also working towards banning microplastics.

How can I help?

Most people use products containing microplastics every day, so you can help by switching to plastic-free alternatives, or making your own DIY salt scrubs. Sometimes the use of microplastics is advertised (look for ‘scrub’ and ‘exfoliating’ in the product name) or it may be listed in the ingredients list as ‘polyethylene’ or ‘polypropylene . The Good Scrub Guide Australia (pdf) lists local products that are plastic-free and the Beat the Microbead app has an extensive list of international brands.

Or you could ditch scrubs and exfoliants altogether. Associate Professor Greg Goodman from the Australasian College of Dermatologists says unless you have especially oily skin these products are probably doing more harm than good.

“The barrier function of the skin is exactly that, it’s around about the thickness of a piece of cling wrap and it functions as a protector against the outside world for chemicals and bugs and all sorts of things,” he says.

“One of the things that people do incessantly is they scrub themselves to death. In most people exfoliants are not necessary. Most dermatologists would say that exfoliation is done too much as you can wreck your skin’s barrier function.”

What the movers and shakers think:

Santiago Mejia Acosta, spokesperson for the Australian Marine Conservation Society
“Governments must update legislation and implement rapid phase-outs of petrochemical plastics used inside products such as cosmetics, toothpaste and shampoos. While larger pieces of plastic can be removed by stormwater filters and sewage treatments, no existing filtration systems capture microplastics, so we must stop them entering the system.”

Tim Silverwood, plastic pollution spokesperson and co-founder of Take 3
“Scientific analysis convincingly shows that microplastic particles are being ingested by all manner of marine organisms and that toxins absorbed onto these plastics can be transferred into animal tissue. Whilst many companies have voluntarily agreed to phase out products containing microbeads it is becoming clear their intents may not be as genuine as first thought. It's imperative that Australia pursues thorough legislative reform to stop these atrocious products from being manufactured or sold in this country."

Associate Professor Greg Goodman, spokesperson for the Australasian College of Dermatologists
“The cosmetic industry is going to have to look at finding delivery systems that are more eco-friendly – and you just don’t need these additives that are put into exfoliating products.”