Ban the Bead – Hidden Plastic

Scrub. ……Exfoliate…….Cleanse……Rejuvenate……So Smooth…….

I know I have purchased many products over the years that promised to make my skin feel healthier. Younger. More radiant. My teeth whiter, cleaner and brighter. Back in the nineties I sourced these products in health food shops. They contained sea salt and coconut shell. And somehow, I hardly noticed that things began to change. With the advancement of technology these exfoliants became cheaper, more accessible, and they also seemed to become more blue. Supermarket shelves are now lined with their promises. The use of microbeads of plastic can do the same job in making your skin feel oh so silky smooth – at a fraction of the cost. Why crush organic coconuts when there is plenty of plastic around?

However, when I learned that these lovely little scrubbing balls of pleasure were made from plastic that end up in our oceans, my skin felt lack lustre and I took a deep breath. We are all familiar that when we call something ‘plastic’ we are inferring it is fake. These ‘blue’ exfoliants are nothing like the natural coconuts growing on the atolls of the Pacific.

These tiny additives that peel back a layer of our largest organ are being rubbed onto our faces and bodies, rinsed around our mouths, before being washed down the plug hole. Off they travel unnoticed by our water treatment systems, into our rivers, lakes, bays and oceans. Now if I were a fish and I saw these round beads, measuring a third of a millimetre, sitting on the ocean floor or floating along a current, I would gobble up those little ‘fish eggs’ and look for some more. Filter feeders such as molluscs enjoy digesting them too. These lovely spheres of polyethylene and polypropylene must be like candy!


Ban the Bead!


Now, there may not be sufficient evidence to say that polyethylene and polypropolene themselves are carcinogens but plastic is really good at absorbing the toxic chemicals that exist around it, such as in the silt along river beds, in our waterways and oceans. PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and DDTs (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) may have been phased out during the 70s and 80s but these chemicals that were once used for commercial and agricultural purposes are very much prevalent in our environment today. The risks are numerous: tumours, low birth weight, poor intellectual performance, nervous system problems and the list goes on. According to research done by Dr Chelsea Rochman (, plastics she has examined from the ocean, contain these chemicals as well as metals such as copper, lead, nickel and cadmium. In addition, salmon and Orca whales have been found to be the most contaminated of all marine life. However, it is not just one fish, one bird or one whale consuming these contaminants.

Try to comprehend that using just one tube of cleanser contains an estimated 300 000 plastic microbeads (The 5 Gyres Institute). Imagine how many tubes are being used each year? Microbeads now cover 21% of the Earth’s surface. Walk along the beach and they are camouflaged as grains of sand. So, it is guaranteed that chemicals of some sort are travelling through the food chains and ecosystems. And there is no point in even thinking, oh well I don’t even eat seafood… it won’t harm me.

Our oceans provide us with oxygen, food and regulate the climate and that is why we need to care for them. To throw another chunk of chemicals into this plastic smog, the ABC Catalyst Program investigated microbeads here in Australia. Sydney Harbour in fact. When examining fish guts, they expected to find the types of plastics found in cleansers but something even more intriguing revealed itself. Micro fibres of plastic. Under close scrutiny these were revealed to be strands from our clothing, washed into our waterways via our washing machines and into the stomachs of fish. Fabric fibres from nylon and polyester. Plastic clothing. Unfortunately, these threads have a greater surface area than microbeads and therefore are even more capable of absorbing and spreading chemical contamination.

So what can you and I do? Firstly, purchasing power is crucial. Don’t buy products that contain microbeads. We also have to push our governments to realise this is a fact. As far as the threads of plastic go, I see no reason why washing machines can’t be fitted with filters.

Advancement, science and technology have contributed to this problem. However, science has also revealed these miniscule secrets within our waterways. Every individual can make a difference. So, what’s on your dinner plate tonight?

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