Study after study has shown microplastics, considered tiny bits of plastic a few millimetres in length or less, cause all manner of ecological damage and negative health effects on the human body.
Due to this growing body of evidence, many governments have banned, or are in the process of banning, the use of small plastic bits in commercial products. Popular examples of banned products include glitter and microbeads that are used as exfoliants in cosmetic products.
Glitter is manufactured from plastic sheets and is found in a wide range of products, including many cosmetics. When washed down the drain, glitter can enter the environment and find its way into sensitive marine ecosystems. Microplastics are discovered all over the world’s oceans, from the surface to the sea floor. They are eaten by microorganisms, fish, shellfish, birds and other marine life. Plastic bits collect in the stomachs of animals, where they can lead them to die of undernourishment. Researchers have become increasingly worried about its effects on fish and other marine life.
Most microplastics derive from two sources: plastic trash shredded bits by UV rays oxidation; and small pieces of plastic like glitter and microbeads. These plastics do not degrade and will probably stay in the oceans for hundreds of years. Researchers have determined about 8 trillion microbeads enter waters in the US every day.
Research on the impacts of microplastics are extremely variable and count on the type and form of the particle. Some types of marine life error the plastic beads for food. A recent United National Ecosystem Plan (UNEP) report determined that the majority of the plastics in cosmetics and personal care products was comprised of non-degradable polymers that could take centuries to break down. The same study found a standard exfoliating shower gel can easily contain as much plastic as is used to make its container.
Another study published in 2016 linked microplastic contaminants to lower reproductive levels in Pacific oysters. For that study, scientists in France subjected Pacific oysters for two months to water polluted with microplastics at a level found within the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The researchers saw that the exposed oysters generated fewer and more diminutive egg cells, slower sperm, and fewer, slower-growing offspring, when compared to oysters grown in plastic-free water.
The risks to human health from microplastics are significant because microplastics in the ecosystem commonly absorb in long-lasting organic toxins that may cause cancer and damage reproductive health. These toxins include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were once commonly used in electrical machinery, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are created by the incineration of fossil fuels.
Governments Taking Action
Many governments around the world have recognised the threat posed by microplastics by enacting bans, or by taking steps toward a ban.
In July 2016, the United States prohibited creation of health and beauty products that include microbeads. The same regulation banned sales of cosmetics that contain microbeads as of July 2018, as well as over-the-counter medications with small plastic particles as of July 2019.
Canada prohibited the use of microbeads in June 2016. The United Kingdom prohibited microbeads earlier this year. In January, Cosmetics Europe, a trade organization which represents European cosmetics businesses, announced an extensive microbead restriction plan.
Governments aren’t the only organizations taking action. Many businesses are looking to reformulate their products in an effort to steer clear of new or impending regulations. Lush Ltd., a U.K.-based cosmetics producer, has replaced plastic glitter used in its products with man-made mica and mineral glitter, as well as starched-based lustres.
Lush has suggested on its website that people looking to mitigate microplastics-related problems should look at labels of all cosmetics they use to see if they include any plastic-based ingredients.