Action on microbead pollution urged

A leading marine scientist has called on the Federal Government to lead a phase-out of microbeads in skincare products in Australia, after the US Government banned the highly polluting substances late last year.

water drain

Microbeads, minuscule plastic fragments most often used to give exfoliating properties to toiletries, are washed down drains and into waterways by the billions, with a single bottle often contain more than 300,000 microbeads.

Pharmaceutical companies such as Unilever, L’Oreal and The Body Shop launched an industry-led initiative to remove microbeads from skincare products, but the director of the Sydney Institute for Marine Science, Emma Johnston, said gaps remain.

“The combination of a lack of consumer awareness and gaps in industry procedures means we could still have a lot of microbeads entering the environment,” she said.

“I don’t think that consumers seeing polyethylene or polypropylene on the labelling will realise that means microbeads.”

John Dee from advocacy group DoSomething said last year that without a ban, cheap, no-name products containing microbeads could still enter the Australian market.

Johnston said federal legislation that was followed through at the state level was needed to ensure the beads did not enter Australian waterways and environment, but that she was not aware of any legislation currently in the works. 

“The senate inquiry into plastic in the marine environment is also looking at microbeads and other plastics, but at the moment they are working towards industry-led voluntary guidelines,” she said.

“It would be great if they were removed by water treatment, but only some processes can deal with microbeads.

“Slugging processes can actually remove a dramatic amount, but even at 1% you’re still going to get 3000 or so microbeads per bottle coming out into the environment.”

Samples of Sydney Harbour water last year showed 60-100 microbeads per 100mL of water, among the highest in the world.

But Johnston said microbeads aren’t the only concerning plastic in Australian waters.

“In Sydney Harbour, we’re finding microfibres are a real problem. When we do vibrational spectroscopy on the fibres, we find they’re nylon, polyester type fibres. The likely source is clothing – washing machine effluent,” she said.

“Microbeads are only one part of the problem, but they are the easiest to address. In pharmaceuticals products they are non-essential ingredients.”

Microbeads can not only cause metabolic issues for the organisms that swallow them, but they can carry other toxins and pollutants into the food chain.

“They act as sponges for a whole lot of other organic pollutants, and once they’re digested by other organisms, the digestion process can mean these pollutants are released and absorbed by the organism, and this can be how those pollutants enter the food chain,” Johnston said.