PETER FROST has been beachcombing over the New Year and discovered the hidden animal-killer that could be in your cosmetics.
WAS lucky enough to spend a few days on the Kent coast over the recent holiday. Kent has more than its fair share of atmospheric creeks and muddy saltings to explore and also some fine beaches.
Early one morning I took a stroll along the tideline on one of the beaches, hoping to spot a seal or two. Instead I found a band of public-spirited women and men on a mission to clean up the beach. They were picking up the mainly plastic detritus that is these days an all-too-common part of the beach scene.
There were bottles and containers, scraps of plastic bags and far too many of the neck rings that hold together six-packs of beer and seem almost designed to trap sea birds.
However talk among this noble crew of litter-pickers focused on a news story from further along the coast. A huge tide of plastic bright pink plastic bottles had washed up on the Cornish coast. Thousands of them have been spotted on beaches along the Lizard Peninsula and mainly at Poldhu Beach.
My companions were experts on these strange plagues washed onto our beaches. This time it might be detergent bottles but in the past we have seen thousands of cheap cigarette lighters and, for more than 20 years, millions of Lego bricks have been washed ashore with particular tides.
“The pink Vanish bottles may have come from the MV Blue Ocean, which lost a container of the detergent in May last year” one of the experts told me as she popped even more litter into her black bag, “but we will never know the real truth.”
After our litter-pick we retired to the beach cafe for a welcome breakfast kipper and the group explained to me that unsightly as the large plastic litter was, there was an even more serious threat of plastic pollution to our beaches and indeed our lakes, rivers, canals and waterways. This is the threat of millions of tiny pieces of plastic called microbeads.
What are microbeads? They are plastic abrasive particles that are added to everyday cosmetic products such as face wash, toothpaste, cleaners and lots more.
They are most frequently made of polyethylene but can be of other petrochemical plastics such as polypropylene and polystyrene. Microbeads are small enough to go down your plughole and easily pass water filtration systems. They are usually smaller than 5 mm.
As I saw on that beach in Kent, there are already tons of plastic swirling around our beautiful oceans. In fact, about 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the oceans every year.
Not all gets washed up onto beaches. Much of it ends up in the stomachs of seabirds, whales, turtles, fish and other marine life. Some of it can be detected in the fish caught for human consumption.
How do microbeads affect the ocean? They are tiny, and may seem harmless, but 100,000 microbeads are washed down the sink with the single application of some products, ending up in rivers, then the sea, and then working up the food chain.
Where do they end up? New scientific research is continuing to find more and more examples of plastic inside all kinds of sea life.
But it’s not just marine life. A recent study showed that one in 10 of all birds have plastic in their stomachs too. New research is showing that tiny shrimp-like animals are eating plastic microbeads rather than natural foods.
Public pressure has already convinced some companies like Asda, Avon, the Body Shop, L’Oreal and Boots to consider not using microbeads in their own brand products — but they may still stock other products with containing microbeads. Those pressures must continue until all microbeads are removed from the market. There are natural abrasives that can replace the plastic versions but these are less profitable.
Barack Obama has already outlawed microbeads, and so has the Canadian government. Sadly David Cameron hasn’t moved on them yet. As so often, our Prime Minister seems to be favouring bigger profits for the multinationals over protecting the environment.
You can write to your MP or sign one of the online petitions asking Cameron and his ministers to ban these poisons.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 22 January 2016.
- A petition calling for microbeads to be banned from cosmetic products in Britain can be found at petition.parliament.uk/petitions/104464.