Ireland is worried about microbeads, but what exactly are they?

One shower can lead to 100,000 plastic particles in waterways, says Naughten

Microbeads in Ireland’s waterways are a ‘huge and growing’ problem, according to Denis Naughten. Photograph: Getty Images

Microbeads in Ireland’s waterways are a ‘huge and growing’ problem, according to Denis Naughten. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Microbeads are a “growing problem” in Ireland which needs to be looked at, Minister for Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten has said.

“A single shower can lead to 100,000 micro beads going into our waterways - it’s a huge and growing problem, not just in the country, but internationally. I know in both the United States and the UK they’re outlawing the use of micro beads in cosmetics,” Mr Naughten said.

“The EU is also looking at this issue, there is a role for the EU in relation to this but here in Ireland as well we are looking at microbeads getting into our water systems because they’re having a huge impact in relation to out fish stocks and in relation to our clean water standards,” he told RTÉ radio.

Microbeads are tiny pieces of plastic frequently used in cosmetic products. After they get washed down the drain they can end up in oceans by their trillions where they get eaten by marine life.

Exfoliating face scrubs, toothpastes and other products often contain microbeads – they give these products their gritty texture.

Invented by Norweigan scientist John Ugelstad in the 1980s, they had medical applications including in Aids testing and and cancer treatments.

But environmental compaigners such as Greenpeace have warned about their use in cosmetics and detergents and the impact they can have on marine life.

There are about 100,000 in most facewashes and the number that gets washed down plugholes in the US every day has been estimated at about 808 trillion.

Of these, an estimated 1 per cent remain in solution. They get eaten by tiny plankton and work their way up the food chain where they have been found in the stomachs of large fish and fish-eating birds.

Banned

The Netherlands banned them in 2014, the US banned them in 2015 and Canada banned them in June of this year. The UK has followed suit, with a plan to ban microbeads in cosmetics by the end of 2017.

Some cosmetic companies have also stopped using them voluntarily. In 2012 Unilever said it would no longer put them in its products, while L’Oréal and Procter & Gamble have also said they will stop using them. Boots removed microbeads from its own brands in 2014.

The move to ban microbeads in the UK prompted the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association to say it did not understand why it was being singled out when many other types of plastic are dumped in the ocean.

According to the Guardian, the organisation’s spokesman and director general Chris Flower said the ban was inevitable. “But it will ban something we are not using. The survey we’ve carried out (on members) shows a 70 per cent reduction (in products with microbeads) since 2015, and almost zero by the end of 2018.”

So far there is no scientific evidence that microplastics pose any risk to humans when passed up the food chain by fish.

A review by the European Food and Safety Agency said the digestive tract of marine organisms contains the largest quantities of microplastics but this part is normally discarded before consumption. However, the digestive tract of bivalves such as mussels is eaten.

The study said microplastics are likely to originate from other sources than the food itself, eg processing aids, water, air or being release from machinery, equipment and textiles. It is therefore possible that the amount of microplastics increases during processing.

Campaigners say consumers concerned about microbeads should avoid products containing polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and nylon.

Natural, biodegradable, alternatives to microbeads exist, such as jojoba beads, apricot kernels, ground nutshells and salt.