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article imageMicro-plastics from body scrubs found polluting the Great Lakes

By Chanah Rubenstein     Nov 5, 2013 in Environment
Many of us scrutinize over the labels when we buy our food, but do many of us think about what’s in our cosmetics and personal hygiene products? A study has found a worrisome amount of plastic beads in the Great Lakes that originate from body scrubs.
A new study by 5 Gyres Institute (a NGO) and SUNY Fredonia has found a staggering amount of micro-plastics in the Great Lakes. These micro-plastics are thought to be micro-beads originating from body scrubs.
Along with the micro-plastics, coal ash was also found, suspected from the surrounding coal burning plants. The build-up of micro-plastics and coal ash was found mostly in the Laurentian Great Lakes, with the largest amounts seen in Lake Erie.
The study took surface samples from 21 locations in July 2012 and when analyzed, the shapes, sizes, and colors of the micro-plastics appeared to be from the micro-beads seen predominately in commercial face and body scrubs.
Micro-beads are plastic beads [usually referred to in cosmetics as polyethylene (PE), but can be also be made of polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and nylon] that are less than 5 mm in size, though personal care products such as facial/body scrubs and toothpaste generally use beads smaller than 1 mm.
Traditionally, salts and ground nut shells were used in personal care products as a scrubber and exfoliator. However, over the years, companies have moved to plastic.
Scientists are finding micro-beads in the lakes because the waste water filtration systems are not designed to filter them out. Many scientists and organizations, such as the Plastic Soup Foundation and 5 Gyres, are worried about these small pieces of plastic, because they’re not biodegradable and build up. Also, the surface layer attracts persistent organic pollutants (POP’s) and fish have been found to ingest them, adding toxins to the food chain, "Beat the Microbead" reports.
Micro-beads of this minuscule size can be found in toothpaste, body wash, shave gel, and most commonly, in body and facial scrubs. In one sampling by 5 Gyres, there was an estimated 360 000 micro-beads in one tube of Neutrogena’s “Deep Clean”.
There is progress being made to reduce micro-plastics. Dutch NGO’s The Plastic Soup Foundation and the North Sea Foundation created an app called ‘Beat the Microbead,’ which allows users to scan a products bar code to see if they contain micro-beads. The app is available in five languages and the website includes information and facts about micro-beads.
Shortly after launching the app last year, some companies have come out and publicly announced they will stop or phase out the use of micro-beads. Unilever was the first to announce in December of 2012 that they would phase them out by 2015. Beiersdorf and L’Oreal followed suit shortly thereafter. Though neither gave a date, Beiersdorf suspects it will be within a couple of years. A list of brands that have made the pledge to be micro-bead free can be found at the ‘Beat the Microbead’ website.
Other organizations have found ways to help consumers make an informed decision. Flora and Fauna International have released The Good Scrub Guide that lists products that don’t contain plastics. While there are some cross-border overlaps, it is aimed at the UK market.
The David Suzuki Foundation has a guide to the toxins that can be found in cosmetics and personal care products called “What’s inside? That counts [PDF].” There is also the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep, which has a cosmetic database which rates products on a scale of 1 to 10 based on its toxicity.
More about microplastics, microbeads, plastic soup, 5 gyres, beat the microbead
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