Plastic (not) fantastic: microbeads are poisoning our oceans

Scientists in New South Wales have found some of the world's highest concentrations of plastic microbeads in Middle Harbour. But it's not a record to be proud of! Read on for a how-to guide to avoid poisoning fish, the planet — and yourself.

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In bays and estuaries surrounding Sydney, floating in the crystal-blue waters that tourists flock from all over the world to enjoy, there are billions of particles of toxic plastic called microbeads. And they're killing our fragile marine life.

A common ingredients in cosmetic and household products, the problem with these microbeads (as you might've guessed from their name) is that they're incredibly small. So small, in fact, that most wastewater treatment facilities can't filter them out. The only way to stop microbeads from poisoning our rivers, lakes and oceans is to stop them entering delicate marine ecosystems in the first place — which couldn't be easier, we'll tell you how!


Click to view the full picture! (Image: 5Gyres.com)

Poly-what-now?

If you've ever used a commercial face-scrub, shower-gel or toothpaste, chances are you've been duped into smothering your face with plastic. Yes, you read that right: plastic. Now, there's a time and place for wearing plastic on your face — Halloween, masquerade balls, or when you're giving CPR — but during your morning shower? Not so much.

Microbeads are easy to spot once you know what you're looking for. If any of the following words pop up in an ingredients list — polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate or polymethyl methacrylate — it's highly likely you're smearing microscopic plastic on yourself. Yuck!


Microbeads: Slough years off the life of the planet! (Image: Adam Zyglis / The Buffalo News)

Microbeads = toxic sponges

Clouds of discarded microbeads make up a toxic debris that settles on river and ocean floors. Marine worms ingest these toxins and then, when they're eaten by fish or other predators, the fish gobble up microbead poisons along with the worms. Then if people then eat those poisoned fish, well... you guessed it, they're at serious risk of falling ill from the toxic residue too.

This is because microbeads function like miniature sponges, absorbing things like pesticide and other chemical runoff, and it's been reported that they can be up to a million times more toxic than the water they're floating in. The good news is that the easiest — and kindest! — way to keep plastic out of your diet is to leave fish off your plate.

Australia moves to phase-out microbeads

A number of big-name brands — like Unilever, Dove, Vaseline and Simple — have pledged to phase-out the use of microbeads in their product lines. But many lesser-known brands that import into Australia are yet to make a similar commitment.

The International Campaign Against Microbeads has created a series of guides to help consumers navigate their way through the 'plastic soup' of microbead-laden products. Check them out to see which products sit in the danger zone, which brands should be approached with caution, and which products are microbead-free.*

*Some of these companies may still test on animals. Be sure to cross check with the Cruelty-free Guide to make sure your favourite brands are as kind to rabbits as they are to fish.


Microbead exfoliating scrubs aren't any good for this little guy.

DIY action against toxic microbeads!

John Hocevar, ocean campaign director at Greenpeace, has been vocal in his opposition of microbeads:

Microbeads are an important example of this wider problem of us designing products for one-time use that we're stuck with for our lifetimes, our children's lifetimes, our grand children's lifetimes. But it will kill us. We will drown and be poisoned in our own waste unless we get our act together.

Happily, there are plenty of natural alternatives to plastic microbeads — many of them kitchen staples — including oats, walnut shells, salt, sugar, and even used coffee grounds! Raid the pantry and make your own cosmetics, for a fraction of the price of commercial brands, and rest assured that cleaning your face is keeping the oceans clean too.

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More ways to keep the oceans beautiful

Being mindful of the health of our oceans — and their inhabitants — goes beyond putting a end to microbeads.

  • Learn more about the 'blue heart of our planet' and how to keep it, and all the creatures that live within it, safe.
  • Be kind to fish! Even though they look very different, they're far more similar to us than you might think...

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