Illustration by Shenuka Corea
They seem harmless when judged by their size, yet their production and distribution is illegal in four countries, and other regions are working on legislation to ban them from store shelves. Microbeads are very small pieces of plastic that are found in a wide range of personal care products. Their size usually ranges from 10 micrometers to 1 millimeter. You might feel them on your skin when using an exfoliating scrub in the shower, or even in your toothpaste when brushing your teeth.
As of March 2018, NYU Abu Dhabi joined the campaign against the use of microbeads. Ecoherence and ADNH Compass have partnered up to identify the products stocked at the Convenience Store that contain microbeads and remove them permanently from the shelves, replacing them with alternative products. At NYUAD, this meant discontinuing the sale of three types of Nivea face washes, and adding an additional Lavera face wash. Microbeads can be spotted on a product’s ingredient list by looking for polyethylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polypropylene, polymethyl methacrylate, nylon or polylactic acid. Ecoherence members took it upon themselves to go through the shelves of the convenience store to find out which of the products contained any of these plastics. They sent the list of these products to ADNH.
Why are microbeads considered to be so harmful? Even though they are big enough for us to see, they are too small to be captured in our sewage system. As soon as microbeads leave our sink and enter the drain, they continue on a journey to wastewater treatment plants, where due to their small size they slip right through the grates that trap larger objects like tampons, children’s toys and the remnants of a neglected pet goldfish. Since the microbeads do not get captured, they get flushed into the ocean as part of the treated wastewater. Once in the ocean, microbeads get confused by sealife as food, and add to the bioaccumulation of toxic pollutants. According to a study carried out by RMIT University, up to 12.5 percent of the pollutants contained in microbeads get absorbed by the fish that eats it. This problem continues along the food chain, and when predators like salmon, squid and of course humans eventually eat the fish, they also consume the toxins that the fish carries within itself.
However, let's remember that microbeads are only one way that plastic enters the ocean. According to a Greenpeace report, of the 260 million tons of plastic the world produces each year, a whopping 10 percent of it ends up in the ocean. Even when focusing just on plastics entering the ocean through sewage water, studies show that a single load of laundry can contain thousands of fibers of microplastics that come off fabrics made of polyester, nylon, and acrylics. The problem with plastic, unlike other organic substances, is that it photodegrades rather than biodegrades. What this means is that instead of breaking down into its original organic compounds, it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces; thus, petroleum-based plastics never stop being a menace to an aquatic biome.
The theme of 2018’s Earth Day — which will be celebrated at NYUAD as part of Go Green Week — is End Plastic Pollution. While banning microbeads at one university campus has a miniscule effect on the greater effort to end plastic pollution, we hope that it promotes dialogue and ignites a determination to be better stewards for our world.
Kate Melville-Rea and Jessica Molina are contributing writers. Email them at [email protected]