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Marine Waste: Cleanser Can Release 100,000 Micro-Beads

Sep 03, 2015 12:32 PM EDT
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We've heard about plastic "microbeads" from cosmetics and pastes getting into streams and the ocean. In June 2014, Illinois became the first state to begin the process of banning the tiny beads, and some legislators are asking for a federal ban in the U.S. Other countries are discussing the beads too, as a recent study by researchers at the U.K.'s Plymouth University shows. That study found that a single use of a bead-containing product--which include hand cleansers, soaps, toothpaste, shaving cream, bubble bath, sunscreen and shampoo--can release 100,000 microbeads into marine environments. 

Because those plastic particles--each about a fraction of a millimeter in diameter--pass through normal sewage receptors and are released into rivers and oceans, the Plymouth University researchers estimate they may be adding up to 80 tons of plastics waste from the U.K. alone, and that their impact on marine ecosystems is big, according to a news release regarding that research. 

"As the study unfolded I was really shocked to see the quantity of microplastics apparent in these everyday cosmetics. Currently, there are reported to be 80 facial scrubs in the U.K. market which contain plastic material; however some companies have indicated they will voluntarily phase them out from their products. In the meantime, there is very little the consumer can do to prevent this source of pollution," Imogen Napper, lead researcher and Ph.D. student, said in the release.

To conduct this research, the team measured the number of microbeads in different facial scrub brands by using vacuum filtration. What did they find? For every 150 milliliters, between 137,000 and 2.8 million microparticles were present in these products. Many recent reports have estimated that marine life and seabirds encounter dangerous amounts of plastic waste in their natural environments.

"Using these products leads to unnecessary contamination of the oceans with millions of microplastic particles," Richard Thompson, professor of marine biology at Plymouth, said in the release. "There is considerable concern about the accumulation of microplastics in the environment; our previous work has shown microplastics can be ingested by fish and shellfish and there is evidence from laboratory studies of adverse effects on marine organisms."

Their study was recently published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.

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