The Latest on Microbeads

The problem with microbeads, the changing legislation and what a consumer can do. 

Microbeads are tiny bits of plastic – ‘microplastic’ – included in a number of cosmetics toiletries and household products like face scrubs, shower gels and toothpaste.

They have been turning up inside marine creatures, causing worry both about damage to the creatures themselves and about their making their way up the food chain to humans.[1]

Legislation

Although governments are starting to take some action on microbeads, it is still pretty paltry.

In 2015 the US passed a bill phasing out microbeads in beauty products, and the UK government has just launched a consultation on their plan to follow suit, with the aim of introducing legislation by October 2017.

However, in both cases the proposed legislation is only partial. It is limited to personal care and cosmetic products, while microbeads are also found in other household items, particularly cleaning products like washing powders.

It is quite possible to make cleaning products without using microbeads. Tesco is phasing out microbeads from all of its own brands and, as Greenpeace points out, if Tesco can do it then it’s surely possible for the rest of the industry to do the same.[2] 

What to do as a consumer

In July 2016 Greenpeace rated the 30 largest global personal care and cosmetic companies on their commitment to phasing out microbeads.[3] Those rated in our beauty and cleaning product guides are listed below: 

Table: Greenpeace Microbreads ratings

If none of these cover the product you are interested in, it is worth looking out for the names under which Microplastic can appear: Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) or Nylon (PA).

However, none of these large companies had a satisfactory policy – those rated as best are just better than the others. Several smaller companies do better, with the following companies not using microbeads at all: Green People, Lavera, Lush and Neal’s Yard.[4]

Identifying individual products that are free from microbeads is slightly complex because companies do not write ‘microbeads’ on ingredients lists. Fauna & Flora International has published lists of microbead-free products, but at the moment it is limited to facial scrubs, toothpastes, body scrubs and shaving products. There is also a ‘Beat the Microbead’ app.[5]

Beat the Microbead campaign suggests that you send products containing microbeads back to the manufacturer, and they provide a handy letter template to help. And those who are knowledgeable about the issue may consider participating in the government’s consultation.

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