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Let’s weigh up the impact of banning microbeads from your daily scrub.

January 20, 2016

There are three main reasons and a few minor ones why brands have historically (and may currently) use plastic microbeads in a cosmetic product. My pointing these out to you doesn’t mean I think it is a good idea by the way…..

  • They are cheaper than pretty much every other option. Cheaper by a huge margin, quite possibly only 1/10th of the cost.
  • They present a much lower micro bio-burden than the vast majority of their natural equivalents, especially the nut shell type equivalents.
  • Nobody is allergic to plastic. Well I’m sure now that I’ve said that some people will say they are but I bet you know more people with nut allergies than you do plastic.

2016-01-20 12.25.56

On 28th December while most people were still rolling around on the floor grabbing their stomachs and screaming for somebody to ‘please take away the candies, chocolate and cake’ US President Obama was signing away a new law to ban these little suckers. A law that passed without the usual trials and tribulations.

And that’s a good thing. A very good thing as reducing our plastic consumption, especially our discretionary plastic use would definitely make most peoples ‘good things to do for the environment’ list.  So I’m all for this.

But being a bit of a nerd and a realist I do like to know what the potential impact of my actions are, not least to help me work out if a) this action alone is enough and b) how much energy to put into publicising this as a cause that other people can get involved in.  People like causes but people don’t like to feel bombarded.  Throw too many causes at people and they clam up, stick their fingers in their ears and feel totally rubbish about life.

So what difference will this make to our oceans?

Here are two bits of information that I’ve found very interesting over the last week or so:

  • Annual global plastic production has grown from 1.5 million tonnes to 299 million tonnes in the past 65 years  (found in Wellbeing magazine and they got the figure from the ICES Journal of Marine Science)
  • Of all the plastic produced in the world this science magazine estimated that somewhere between 4.8-12.7 million tonnes finds its way into the oceans. That’s between 1.6-4.24% of the total production.

So I wanted to do a rough calculation to see what share of the destruction could be attributed to plastic microbeads so this is what I did:

  1. I found out that the global population in 2014 was 7 297 056 400 people
  2. I also found out that 1 919 125 833 of those people were aged between 0-14 and would therefore not be the target market for facial scrubs. These people were taken out of my total.
  3. That left me with approx. 5.4 billion people as my total.
  4. I thought that it would be totally outrageous to assume that each of those people would be using a commercial, plastic bead scrub every day to wash their face but as I wanted to create a ‘worst case scenario’ model I figured that if we cut that into half we were probably still wildly overestimating but it would give us something to start with.  So now my scrub user pool stands at 2.7 billion people.
  5. I made another wild estimation that every one of those 2.7 billion people would be scrubbing their faces each and every day and that they would use an average dose size of 5g.  Using the powers of my cosmetic chemistry background I calculated that a scrub usually contains around 5% scrub agent so that gave me a plastic count of 0.25g of beads per person, per day.
  6. So then I times’d my people group with the amount of plastic scrubbed with per day and then times’d that by 365 to get a figure of 246 375 tons of plastic microbead per year.
  7. I assumed that every last drop of that made it into the sewers and waterways.
  8. I then took the lowest estimate for total plastic making it to the sea each year to find out what percentage of that total would be plastic microbeads from face scrubs.   So that’s 100 divided by 4 800 000 tons of rubbish times 246 375 tons = 5.13%

So according to my rough calculations and estimations as a worst case scenario 5.13% of all of the plastic rubbish entering the sea could be from plastic microbeads in cosmetics. If we take the higher estimate for sea plastic our microbeads account fora touch over 2%.

And if I take the figure for the total plastic manufactured each year  0.082% ends up being used after being formulated into a microbead scrub each year.

So what does that mean and what have I learned from doing this?

Leaving aside the high potential for errors in my estimations (over rather than under-estimating) going through the motions of doing this has taught me a few things. Most importantly the fact that there are a lot of people in the world and many of those people will be washing themselves daily. Whatever ‘product’ people  wash with it is nearly always going to end up in waterways and this does matter.  We COULD and SHOULD care more about this.

The second thing that this exercise has reminded me of (once again) is the importance of symbolism and achievable, bite-sized goals.  While most people will appreciate that banning plastic microbeads in cosmetics is not going to solve ALL of the problem what it can do is start a conversation, a conversation that hopefully motivates positive action and engagement with what is actually a BIG issue.  We do need to find a cure for our plastic addiction and swapping out a plastic scrub for something a bit greener is very do-able for most people.

Lastly what this has taught me is that I really am quite odd. But then again I knew that already.

Here are some photos of some other plastic products that I interacted with in my first hour of waking up today.

My plastic morning

Plastic. It’s everywhere, even on my dog!!!!!

PS:  It is also important to remember that most plastic that ends up in the sea breaks down into little bead like pieces once it gets a bit of friction and UV light on it.  When googling this I found lots of ‘handful of plastic’ pictures that looked like the beads could have come out of a facial care product when in reality the plastic could have been from anything.  It is also important to note that pretty much all plastic starts off life as microbeads or tiny beads and is called ‘masterbatch’.  This is the stuff that factories buy to use to make everything from cups and plates to car parts and coat hangers.

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