The Irish Times

Microbeads: The facts, the fears and the fight have them banned

Kevin O’Sullivan: Thu, Jun 8, 2017, 16:17 

What are microbeads?

Microbeads are tiny pieces of plastic frequently used in cosmetic and cleansing products. They are less than 5mm in diameter. They are found in toothpastes, shower gels, defoliants, bodywashes, face scrubs,detergents, cleansing agents, sunscreens, scouring agents and synthetic fibres in clothing.

Invented in the 1980s, they had medical applications including in Aids testing and cancer treatments but began to get a notorious reputation when they were increasing found in marine environments.They are too small to be removed by sewage filtration systems and end up in rivers and oceans, where they are ingested by birds, fish and other marine life.

What are they used for?

Microbeads are used to give products their gritty texture, or in some instances a smooth structure.

How prevalent are they?

There are about 100,000 microbeads in a facewash product. A single shower can result in 100,000 plastic particles entering the ocean, according to one estimate – the number that gets washed down plugholes in the US every day has been calculated at about 808 trillion. 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.

The amount of plastic waste created in Ireland is unknown, as the EPA is only obliged to report on plastic packaging waste. Microplastic waste created by a range of industries is currently not measured or regulated, although new research from Galway Mayo Institute of Technology gives an indication of its occurrence in rivers and lakes.

Some 90 per cent of microplastics, it found, are channelled through the waste water treatment system and is ending up in sewage sludge and 10 per cent is still going out in treated water, which then goes back into our rivers and lakes. We apply sewage sludge mostly to agricultural land for tillage yet we don’t know or understand what happens to it after that.

Marine experts fear there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050, measured by weight, according to a factsheet from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a UK-based charity working to end waste in the economy. Plastic is omnipresent in oceans, it notes – the same goes for microbeads.

Where are mircobeads banned?

The Netherlands banned them in 2014, the US in 2015 and Canada in 2016. 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.

What are the implications for human health?

So far there is no scientific evidence that microplastics pose a risk to humans when passed up the food chain by fish but there is growing concern about the possibility.

A review by the European Food Safety Authority says 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. It says microplastics are likely to originate from other sources than the food itself, e.g. processing aids, water, air or being release from machinery, equipment and textiles. It is therefore possible that the amount of microplastics increases during processing.

The GMIT study, however, outlines a series of “potential risks” to humans from drinking water or eating food that contains microbeads.

What can you do to minimise their use?

Consumers can help by checking product labels for cosmetics and cleaners to see if they certify they are microplastic free.

Scientists at the University of Bath have developed biodegradable cellulose microbeads that could replace plastic versions, but this promising breakthrough is likely to take some years before they may be routinely used in commercial products.

In the meantime, natural, biodegradable, alternatives to microbeads exist, such as jojoba beads, apricot kernels, ground nutshells and salt.

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Public health at risk from rising use of microbeads, says EPA

Study coincides with UK engineers’ discovery of biodegradable alternative to microplastics

The growth of polluting microplastics in the Irish environment has been confirmed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The agency has published evidence of the sources and scale of “microbeads” – and their threat in Irish freshwaters – for the first time, warning of the risk to public health.

Microbeads are tiny round plastic beads used in exfoliants, cleansers, toothpastes and cosmetic products.

The EPA published the findings of researchers at the Marine and Freshwater Research Centre at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) confirming how microbeads are spreading into rivers and lakes and threatening species living in these ecosystems.

The evidence is likely accelerate Government plans to introduce a ban on use of microbeads in cosmetic and cleaning products. In March this year, Minister for Housing Simon Coveney launched a public consultation on proposed legislation to eliminate their use – as has been introduced in some countries.

Publication of the research coincides with scientists and engineers from the University of Bath announcing they have developed biodegradable cellulose microbeads from a sustainable source “that could potentially replace harmful plastic ones that contribute to ocean pollution”.

One of the UK research team , Dr Janet Scott, said: “We’ve developed a way of making microbeads from cellulose, which is not only from a renewable source, but also biodegrades into harmless sugars. We hope in the future these could be used as a direct replacement for plastic microbeads.”

The GMIT research supports the view that the best way to tackle and reduce microplastic pollution is to remove it at source, rather than trying to address it after pollution occurs.

The threat to the marine environment is already known, and confirmed by other research by GMIT which has revealed the scale of their ingestion by marine life with fatal consequences. Microplastics are also contributing to a global problem of marine litter.

Sources of microplastics

The latest GMIT research has identified some of the main sources of microplastics in Ireland. These include the plastics manufacturing and recycling industries; landfill, urban wastewater treatment plants, septic tanks and the sewage sludge/biosolids derived from such plants. Urban wastewater treatment plants were identified as one of the largest “point sources”; receiving microplastics from a number of different sources.

The study highlighted a number of potential risks to humans, arising from:

– Exposure to microplastics if present in drinking water or via consumption of food prepared using water containing microplastics;

– Consumption of freshwater fish, such as salmon or trout, which have been exposed to or have ingested microplastics; and

– Accidental ingestion of water containing microplastics through bathing.

“In addition to microbeads washed into the sewer from the use of personal care products, synthetic fibres from clothing transported in washing machine wastewater are another significant contributor of microplastics found in urban wastewater treatment plants,” said Dr Anne Marie Mahon of GMIT.

Although some microplastics are discharged with the wastewater into receiving freshwater systems, most of these fibres become trapped in sewage sludge at treatment plants, which include a settlement treatment process, she said. Spreading of these sludges on farm land “poses risks to terrestrial ecosystems and potentially further risks to freshwater systems”.

The study also identified 24 different species of molluscs, fish, birds, mammals and crustaceans, as being potentially at risk from microbeads, many of which are classified as endangered or vulnerable, such as the freshwater pearl mussel.

“This research provides us with vital national level data and information on the environmental sources and risks posed by microplastics in Irish freshwaters,” said EPA research manager Dr Alice Wemaere.

“Consumers can help by checking the product labels for cosmetics and cleaners to see if they certify they are microplastic free,” she added.

Labour Bill

The Government rejected legislation with a view to introducing a ban on microbead use proposed by Green Party Senator Grace O’Sullivan in the Seanad last October, and in May this year reversed a decision to oppose a Labour Party Bill.

Mr Coveney had planned to reject Labour’s Prohibition of Microplastics Bill on the grounds it could place Ireland in breach of EU Treaty articles on the free movement of goods and that it was flawed in definitions, enforcement and its “level of ambition”.

But in the Dáil later he told its author, Cork East Labour TD Seán Sherlock, the Government would not oppose the legislation but would probably abstain and allow it to proceed on the basis that “if and when we produce the Government’s legislative response to this whether in the foreshore Bill or in a separate piece of legislation after the work that needs to be done first”.

This week Minister of State Pat Breen told the UN Conference of the Oceans in New York: “Ireland will legislate domestically to prohibit the sale or manufacture of certain products containing microbeads including not just cosmetics, but also body care and cleansing products as well as detergents and abrasive surface cleaning products…It will not solve the microplastic problem, but it is an important start.”

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Microplastics: from must-have to hated  Cosmetics ingredient

Microbeads – found in many cosmetics products – are a significant environmental hazard, but they are just a small part of Ireland’s plastic waste problem

Microbeads are found by the hundreds of thousands in shower gels, face-scrubs and toothpastesMicrobeads are found by the hundreds of thousands in shower gels, face-scrubs and toothpastes

Microbeads, tiny pieces of plastic found by the hundreds of thousands in shower gels, face-scrubs and toothpastes, were once trumpeted as a cosmetic “must have” – a crucial ingredient in the battle for beauty. Now they have become a hated ingredient.

The US, Canada and the Netherlands have banned them from cosmetics because of their potential impact on the environment, and the UK is preparing to ban them from the end of 2017.

Here, Brown Thomas and Arnotts stopped selling any product containing them in August.

In late September, there was a political push as Green Party Senator Grace O’Sullivan tabled a Bill to prohibit the sale or manufacture of products containing microbeads and monitor the levels of microplastics in Irish waters.

This followed comments from Minister for Climate Action and the Environment Denis Naughten which indicate that the Government may be considering taking action.

“A single shower can lead to 100,000 microbeads going into our water ways. It’s a huge and growing problem, not just in Ireland, but internationally,” Minister for Climate Action and the Environment Denis Naughten told RTÉ radio in September.

“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 our fish stocks and in relation to our clean water standards,” he added.

However Dr Anne Marie Mahon of Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) points out “the cosmetics industry is only one very small piece of the picture”.

Cosmetic microbeads make up just over 4 per cent of microplastics entering the marine environment from Europe. Microplastics are tiny plastic granules, pellets, fibres and fragments less than 5mm in diameter. They can be as small as two to three centimetres in length and are often as thin as a human hair.

According to Mahon, various other industries play a far greater role in creating and distributing microplastics, such as the booming medical devices industry, which produces microplastic waste through milling and grinding processes involved in making products.

However, she reserves particular attention for the clothing industry. “Most of the microplastics that have been found in environmental samples taken from water, whether it be from freshwater or marine samples, are fibres, and these fibres are derived mostly from synthetic clothing that we wear,” she says.

“Thousands of fibres come out per wash into the wastewater and then that goes into the sewage treatment plant,” she adds, with fibres from furnishings such as curtains and carpets also an important source.

While Mahon’s current research focuses on freshwater systems, similar findings have been made off our coasts, with every square kilometre of the ocean estimated to contain about four billion plastic fibres.

In a recent study covering more than 12,700 km of the north-east Atlantic by former GMIT researcher, Dr Amy Lusher, more than 90 per cent of samples captured contained plastics. Analysis of the samples indicated that 89 per cent of the captured plastics were in fact microplastics, the majority of which were fibres rather than microbeads.

“I think it’s important to make people aware that it’s not just microbeads that are affecting animals and it’s not just microbeads that we’re finding in the environment,” says Lusher, now a member of the Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP) – a body that advises the United Nations.

“I’m really glad that we can watch different countries banning them or new moves to combat plastics in cosmetics, but I think that there are other forms of plastics that need to be targeted as well and it shouldn’t be the key focus.”

Back on land, Mahon also mentions the role of the construction industry, which produces microplastics from many hazardous polymers. For example, the sawing of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes and the cutting of PVC windows produces huge amounts of microplastics which are being released into the environment. Other sources include the abrasion of synthetic rubber tyres, household waste, and surprisingly, the recycling industry, which shreds or flakes plastic materials prior to washing.

Once in contact with the plastics, this water is then pumped down the sewer as waste water and into a treatment plant together with millions of particles of microplastics, 90 per cent of which is captured in sewage sludge.

Although this may sound good, as we now know where the microplastics are, Mahon says that lime stabilisation, the most common treatment method used in waste water treatment facilities, may actually be exacerbating the problem by shearing microplastic particles, making them even smaller. As the microplastics break down into smaller particles, their surface-area-to-volume ratio increases, leading to a greater chance of being absorbed by organic materials in the sludge, 80 per cent of which ends up spread on agricultural land.

“What happens to it when it is spread on the land is an absolute unknown,” according to Mahon, who is currently leading an EPA-funded project to examine microplastics in sewage sludge.

The impact on human health is also unknown at this point, either through direct contact with microplastics or through the food chain. A review by the European Food Safety Authority found that although the digestive tract of marine organisms often contains large quantities of microplastics, they are normally discarded before consumption.

Lusher presented similar findings through a study of mammals beached on the Irish coast, including True’s beaked whales, one of the rarest and least understood animals on the planet. Her findings indicated that the whales have the ability to remove plastics from their system in the same way they would eject pieces of bone and items they don’t need.

Lusher plans to further elaborate on her findings and undertake wider research on the impact of microplastics on the marine environment. “We are still trying to find out the effects of plastics because they are such a new and, until recently, a very emerging pollutant, that we were actually unaware of the detrimental effects it was having on the environment,” she says.

According to Mahon, as plastic production increases – quadrupling since the 1980s alone – we need to take more action now to understand the scale of the impact of plastics, on course to outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050.

Laboratory studies have presented early findings on the impact on organisms, including decreased feeding, weight loss, and energy depletion, while a recent French study on oysters highlighted the impact of microplastic exposure on subsequent generations, rather than just the individual which ingested the microplastics.

“Although the lab trials use environmentally irrelevant or exaggerated levels of microplastics, looking ahead to the future, this could be the reality,” Mahon says. “The plastics industry is growing at such a rate that we need to address it now, even if the impacts are not too visible.”


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