#PlasticFreeJuly and Microbeads

We have all seen the often horrific images of marine animals entangled in plastic waste, sometimes firmly embedded around their bodies. We have also heard about the large amounts of plastic floating in our oceans that is ingested by marine life and can be deadly. Even though many people believe there are huge concentrations of debris floating in our oceans, islands the size of Texas, this is not actually true. However, there are patches of oceans with a significant higher concentration of smaller pieces of plastic, such as bottles, bottle caps, plastic bags, pieces of broken plastic, and microscopic plastic.

So I have taken on a new challenge – I will join the Plastic Free July Initiative that was started in 2011 by the Western Metropolitan Regional Council in Perth, Australia. The aim is to raise awareness of the amount of plastic we all consume on a daily basis and to encourage people to reduce at a minimum the use of single-use plastic items during the month of July each year.


The #PlasticFreeJuly challenge is to refuse single-use plastic items and they have some great ideas on their website on how to go about this. The easy ones are the plastic carrier bags that we should ALL replace with reusable shoppers –there is no excuse whatsoever to be using plastic carrier bags EVER. When you buy a reusable shopping bag, some even make a donation to your favourite charity. Not using plastic cups and straws is not difficult either, all it takes is investing in a ‘coffee on the go’ cup that will last for a very long time, unless you leave it on the train. And the straws, well I have never understood the obsession of straws in South Africa with every soft drink you buy….

My biggest bugbear, bottled water, is in my view the easiest of all. Tap water in South Africa is of drinking water quality, making bottled water a complete extravagance. If you are still worried to drink tap water then invest in a simple carbon filter. Take a refillable water bottle to the gym and have one in the car. These days you can buy metal water bottles that even keep your water cool.

There are obviously lots of other examples of single-use plastic items and maybe more on those another time. What I would like to focus on now is the plastic that we don’t see or even realise is in the products we use – the microbeads (i.e. any plastic smaller than 5 mm).

Microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products

These tiny bits of plastic litter our personal care and cosmetics products, like scrubs, shower gel, shaving creams, toothpaste, hair spray, and eye shadows. The exfoliating type shower gels can typically contain an amount of plastic in microbeads equivalent to the packaging in comes in. However, microbeads are not only used in products that have exfoliating properties, they are also used as e.g. bulking agents. In 2012, 4360 tonnes of plastic in microbeads was used just in Europe.

Most of this plastic we cannot recycle, as we literally pour it down the drain. It is often not adequately captured in our waste water facilities and thus ends up in our river systems and oceans.

The microbeads, together with the other plastic that over time degrades into ever smaller pieces, form a serious global environmental issue that specifically affects the marine environment. Microbeads can even be harmful to human health through bio-accumulation, entering the food chain through plankton and ultimately polluting the fish and shellfish we eat.

An additional problem is that the surface of these microscopic plastic particles attracts and absorbs persistent organic pollutants found in the marine environment, such as PCBs and DDT, which can then transfer into animal tissue.

So what can you do to avoid buying products with these microbeads?

Beat the Microbead is an initiative of the Plastic Soup Foundation in the Netherlands, who are actively lobbying to put pressure on both governments and the cosmetics industry to ban the use of microbeads and to find alternatives. They have developed a phone app that scans the barcode of a personal care product and tells you through a colour coding whether or not it contains microbeads. Red means the product contains microbeads, orange still contains microbeads, but the manufacturer has indicated it will replace these in a given timeframe or adapt the product accordingly, and green is free of plastic microbeads.

Although the idea of an app is great, there is no list for South Africa as yet. In the meantime, we still need to check the ingredients in personal care products for microbeads when we go shopping. You need to look out for mainly polyethylene (PE), but microbeads can also be made of polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), and nylon.

Some of the cosmetics manufacturers have made commitments to phase out the microbeads over the next few years. However, for now we need to carefully check the ingredient lists, printed in fonts the size of microbeads, and share what products are available in South Africa that are free of microbeads.

Check for microbeads in personal care products

Beat the Microbead in South Africa by sharing your experiences in the comments below!

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