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The Microbead Dilemma

Swamp Stomp

Volume 18 Issue 9

The UK has recently taken steps to protect the oceans from further pollution, and these steps involve tiny pieces of plastic called “microbeads.” If you have been in the cosmetics aisle at Target or your local grocery stores in the last year, you have run into these small but very impactful pieces of plastic. They are the shiny flecks in exfoliating scrubs and other gel products. But they are also in other places, including cleaning products and synthetic clothing.

The problem with microbeads exists just in what might seem to make them unimportant: their size. Imagine you have just taken a shower, and the shampoo and body wash that you use just happens to contain these tiny, probably meaningless microbeads. You turn the shower off, and the remnants of your soaps wash down the drain, microbeads and all. This water eventually finds itself at a wastewater treatment plant, so the microbeads should be taken care of here. Right? Wrong. Microbeads are so small that they cannot be filtered: they slip through the cracks. And these cracks lead to local waterways, the rivers you drive along on your way to work, which lead to the oceans. And the microbeads begin to build up in the ocean, tiny pieces of plastic unable to be broken down.

But how much impact can these microbeads really have? According to a report conducted in 2016 by the Environmental Audit Committee of the British House of Commons, just one shower can involve over 100,000 microbeads down the drain. Multiply 100,000 by the number of people in the world and you will get a gigantic number. Furthermore, this results in an enormous amount of plastic entering our oceans every single day. And for what reason? So that our shampoos are more aesthetically appealing?

The massive amount of microbeads building up in the oceans have deadly effects on marine life. When microbeads make their journey from the shampoo bottle to the ocean, they tend to absorb chemicals along the way. These chemicals could be anything from motor oil to industrial chemicals that have found their way into local waterways. So, when a fish ingests a microbead, it is ingesting any number of chemicals. Not only is this bad news for the fish, but it is also bad news for any other living thing connected to that fish through their ecosystems. In short, microbeads are killing an unknown amount of marine life.

The good news is that the UK has decided to join a (hopefully) growing list of countries that have decided to outlaw microbeads. The United States passed the Microbeads-Free Waters Act of 2015, which outlawed microbeads beginning in July 2017, and Canada and New Zealand imposed bans which are beginning this year. Microbeads are still alive and well, but more countries in the European Union are starting to join in the outlawing. Moreover, eight million tons of plastic may be entering the oceans every year, but, perhaps, these new laws will start to really make a difference in that number.



Shoe, Des. “The U.K. Has Banned Microbeads, Why?” New York Times. New York Times. 9 January 2018. Web. 11 February 2018.


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