Microbeads No More
Yvonne Lin, Division 3, College sophomore #ws16e-s3d3

At one point or another in our childhood, we were asked by our parents or teachers how we plan on bettering the world when we grow up. We promised world peace, cures to cancer, and the elimination of all evil on Earth, yet the truth is that the idea of improving the world often becomes too far-fetched as we get older. However, the number of problems our world faces has not decreased because young people stopped trying. In recent years, our planet has been threatened by technology on many fronts, and it is obvious to most that not enough emphasis is being placed on one of our most critical issues, the pollution of our oceans, which collectively have a much greater surface area than all the lands. While garbage and oil spills make headlines due to their massive volume, an underlying danger slips through the cracks because of its tiny size. The puny, mundane microbeads has become a serious environmental and health concern because not many people are aware of their existence. We must not be fooled by their diminutive size. To fulfill my attempt to better the planet, I will do my best to rid the world of this tiny evil.

To understand fully the dangers of microbeads, it is important to gain basic knowledge about what they are and what they do. By definition, microbeads are solid plastic particles of less than five millimeters in diameter. They are most frequently made of polyethylene but can also be from other petrochemical plastics such as polypropylene and polystyrene; essentially, microbeads are made of oil. Most of us are aware of the toxic effects crude oil has on the oceans and try our best to avoid it; recycling plastics and cleaning beaches are just some of the tasks people do to protect our seas. What people fail to realize is how common household objects can devastate our waters and set us back even further. Microbeads can be found in almost every cosmetic and personal care products on the shelf. From toothpaste to facewash, hand sanitizer to foundation, microbeads are used for their abrasive quality. That is, they help exfoliate or remove matter from a surface. For example, the microbeads in facewash help remove makeup. Companies include microbeads in their products because they offer an inexpensive option in adding the exfoliating feature. Nevertheless, the microbeads of large corporate motives are killing the oceans.

Unlike most pollutants, microbeads are too small to be filtered by our sewage treating systems. Instead of being removed from the water like other plastics, microbeads slip right through our filters and flow straight into the oceans. This event is only the beginning of the problem. Instead of zooplankton, these tiny balls of plastic are consumed by various small marine life, making the fish themselves equally contaminated. The toxins then bio-accumulate through the food chain and often reach alarmingly-high levels by the time they are found in popular seafood. Most of us are aware of how dangerous chemicals in plastics such as BPA can be to the human body. Many studies including the Breast Cancer Fund have directly linked plastics with cancer, either as the cause or as a contributing factor. While the world is waging a war against cancer, it is ironic to realize our choice in cosmetics can save lives.

The root of the microbead problem is its extreme popularity in cosmetic and personal care products, the largest consumers of which are women. According to InStyle, a women’s magazine, women spend about 15,000 dollars on beauty products annually, making them the primary cosmetic shoppers of their families. Women in modern society rely heavily on make-up and cosmetics; these products containing microbeads have become an essential part of our daily lives. I believe that by taking an extra minute to look at the labels for microbeads and avoiding these products, women around the world can quickly make a difference in the amount of pollution entering our oceans. It is also important to spread knowledge and awareness on microbeads; girls share beauty secrets all the time, tell a friend or family member, and pass on the message.

Combating these tiny spheres of destruction is no difficult task. Being aware of the issue itself makes a difference; there are several websites that we can go on to check which products contain microbeads and potential alternatives to replace them. A good place to start – and where I started my research – is Beat the Microbead. The website outlines various facets of the crisis and offers ways in which individuals can help. They offer donation links to non-profit and non-governmental organizations that advocate for the banning of microbeads as well as a detailed list of products people should avoid. They also track the progress of their work through a series of “results” reports, offering donors transparency and an opportunity to see the changes being made.

Unlike other pressing environmental issues, the changes are being made fast with regards to microbeads. In 2016, the Canadian government classified microbeads as toxic substances and are now banning them in various body cleansers. Thirty-six other countries have also done the same; in 2017 Great Britain will also be banning the production of microbeads for cosmetic and cleaning products.

While seeing changes being made on a national scale is impressive, following through on an individual level is paramount. I myself, for example, have stopped buying toothpaste containing microbeads. I make a point to read the labels when purchasing body wash, shampoos, and other cosmetics when I go shopping. Unfortunately, I do not have social media accounts such as Twitter or Instagram, but another meaningful way to show concern about microbeads is to follow NGOs and charities on social media; they are an effective means of keeping information updated and staying informed. These organizations often host events and fundraisers through the internet, making information easily accessible. What better way is there to spread the message than to “Like,” “Share,” and “Subscribe” at the click of a single button?

Like the microbeads, there are many problems in our current society that might be invisible to the naked eye yet cause a significant impact on our planet. Many of these issues can be solved by simply taking extra care in our daily lives. Making a point to read the labels, doing some research, or even asking a retailer about a merchandise can make us more responsible and sustainable consumers. These little steps can amount to much more on a global scale and thus bettering the world a little at a time. The very idea of making the world a better place stems from the dissatisfaction with current situation; there is room for improvement, and changes need to be made. People often resist change because it requires them to make sacrifices. In the case of microbeads, however, our oceans can be saved by minimal degrees of discomfort at the local drugstore or cosmetic store. Let us therefore make a small sacrifice today and stop purchasing microbead products.
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