Call to ban microbeads

Green Lifestyle

The NSW Environment Minister Rob Stokes has called for a national ban on microbeads, tiny plastic pollutants that are causing problems for waterways, wildlife, and human health globally.


Microplastics amongst sediments from Sydney Harbour seafloor. There is concern that these plastic pollutants will enter the food chain after being ingested by sea creatures, and then humans could be affected if they eat contaminated seafood.

Credit: Vivian Sim UNSW

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Yesterday, the NSW Environment Minister Rob Stokes started lobbying his interstate counterparts to call for a ban on the production and sale of microbeads.

The Minister will lead an industry group to discuss a voluntary phase out of microbeads by 2016.

“Micro-plastics measure less than 5mm, include non-biodegradable plastic found in many products such as shampoos, exfoliants and shower gels go down our sinks straight into the ocean,” said Stokes.

Recent research has shown that a single cosmetic product containing microbeads could contain over 300,000 individual pieces of microplastic.

Stokes said that, “when micro-plastics enter the marine environment, due to their small size and ability to float, they are unlikely to ever fully degrade... Once seabirds ingest micro-particles it can lead to blockages, choking and starvation.”

“Scientists around the world are worried about the health implications to humans who eat seafood contaminated by micro-plastics.”

Around the world, companies and governments are responding to growing concerns surround microplastic pollution. Unilever has stated they will stop using them by January 2015 and in the USA Illinois has already banned the production and sale of microbeads found in a range of personal care products from body scrub to toothpaste.

The Minister's announcement comes just a week after the Sydney Institute of Marine Science released a report, Sydney Harbour, a systematic review of the science 2014, which revealed that the worst affected waters of Middle Harbour have up to 60 microplastics per 100 milligrams of sediment.

Professor Emma Johnston, Sydney Institute of Marine Science’s Director of Sydney Harbour Research, said that finding these pollutants throughout the Harbour was “disturbing.”

“It’s very pleasing to hear the Minister announce his move towards a voluntary industry ban on the sale of microbeads. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not sufficient to solve the problem entirely,” said Johnston.

“As well as microbeads, there are also microfibres, which come from washing fleeces, which we found a lot of. You need to remove them from the source. Also, macroplastics, such as plastic bags and containers can break down into microplastics.”

In the US, trials have been done on filters which can be put in washing machines that prevent microfibres from being washed away with the water. US research has shown fish suffered liver damage after swallowing microplastics, and some microplastics contain toxic materials such as flame retardants.

Tim Silverwood, plastic pollution spokesperson and co-founder of Take 3, told Green Lifestyle today that, “the Minister Rob Stokes has shown exceptional leadership in introducing a proposed national ban on the sale and manufacture of products containing microbeads… but more must be done to address other significant sources of marine plastic pollution.

“We are calling on Premier Baird and other Premiers to immediately agree on a national Container Deposit Scheme to cut the purported 30 per cent of marine debris originating from the beverage industry and to introduce a national ban on ultra-thin single use plastic bags,” said Silverwood.

“Our oceans and waterways are not our toilet bowl, they are a complex and vital ecosystem that supports all life on earth.”

Johnston says the best way to identify a beauty product containing microbeads is to look for the ingredient polyethanol. Also, if a liquid has an unnaturally bright colour, it is likely to contain microplastics.

There's a website called Beat the Microbead that lists the beauty and hygiene products with and without microbeads, and although they don't list Australian products, they do list brands that are also sold in Australia, such as Neutrogena, Clinque, and Clearasil, so check it out at: