News of a planned ban on microbeads in cleaning products and cosmetic products by 2017 has been reported this week – but what damage do these microbeads actually cause?
As a Zoology student, I’m all for anything that helps to reduce human impact on the natural world in an effort to conserve our planet, and this is an issue that has been particularly personal to me. During my time volunteering with the Manx Basking Shark Watch (http://www.manxbaskingsharkwatch.org) led by Jackie and Graham Hall I helped in ‘beach cleans’ for a fellow volunteer’s university project. Every day we would try to do at least one clean on various beaches along the coastline of the Isle of Man and I was astonished at what we found. All shapes and sizes of plastic were scattered along these beaches – especially the ones not frequented by the public; the perfect ‘vanishing box’ for forgotten items. Although, as most people realise, this plastic doesn’t actually disappear. It stays on the beach for years and years, or worse, ends up in the oceans or harming wildlife through entanglement, suffocation or ingestion. It’s easy to imagine how this happens with larger ‘macroplastics’ – we’ve all seen the upsetting pictures of animals with their heads caught in plastic beer rings. During a recent university assignment I investigated causes of death in whales and dolphins. I was previously unaware to the often fatal effect of plastics to cetaceans – I discovered that the amount of plastic ingested by whales in particular was astonishingly large, often including metres of fishing line and numerous plastic bags. But, compared to these larger items, how can much smaller microbeads hurt wildlife?
The effects of microbeads on animals are still being investigated, although it’s relatively easy to deduce that these tiny plastic beads may not have a desirable effect on wildlife. Although much smaller in size macroplastics, the aptly named microbeads could cause even more damage due to larger surface area to volume ratio. Although this reduces the possibility of entanglement or serious physical injury from suffocation or collision with animals, it can increase their ability to interact with pollutants in the water; risking unknown effects to marine creatures.
Microbeads are found unnecessarily in many everyday items such as facial exfoliator scrubs and cleaning products. A fool proof way to make sure you shop responsibly is to check beatthemicrobead.org for lists of products containing microbeads – there’s also an app if you want to check while you’re out shopping. Now we have no excuse not to avoid them, especially with a ban hopefully being finalised in around a year. This is a great victory for conservationists and environmentalists alike, as well as anyone who just wants to help the planet in some way, and is hopefully the first of many reforms to preserve the earth.
After seeing the effect that a small group of volunteers achieved on the Isle of Man over just a week, I am a firm believer in the power of beach cleans and believe they’re really important to support. The Marine Conservation Society are holding their annual Great British Beach Clean on the 16th-19th of September this year, and it would be great if more people get involved. Their website has a list of all of the events listed across the UK: http://www.mcsuk.org/beachwatch/greatbritishbeachclean
Together we can all make a difference!
Image credit: http://www.bbc.com