A frothy storm has been brewing recently as home consumer products are discovered that have micro-bead plastic content designed to give a “lift”. The problem is: they are real downers for aquatic life. A day after the Dec 28 2012 news that Lake Michigan is being clogged with plastic contamination, Unilever announced it will be withdrawing plastic micro-beads from home products like soaps and shampoos, due to “some evidence that they are harmful in oceans” (Editor: the scientific evidence that microplastics are damaging oceans is overwhelming). While many consumers are reacting such as: “I didn’t know there were plastic beads in my shampoo…” others are demanding faster action on microbeads than proposed by Unilevers 2015 target. “Exfoliating” plastic ingredients are found in other big-brand products (such as Olay, Dove and others). These products share in common the presence of tiny particles of polyethylene intended to help lift dirt from your face: it all then goes down the drain into waste-water, where it is considered too small to be recovered. Some waste-water plants are reacting with information about the fate of micro-beads in their process while others are determining if any are present in measurable amounts at all.
It is now well-known that increasing amounts of microplastics are entering the earth’s seas, and the micro-bead issue is just another dimension. Plastic exposed to soil and sunlight may disintegrate into smaller pieces which subsequently end up in waterways and eventually the sea. Unilever’s action proposed for 2015 may not be an isolated event: other companies are likely to stand up and take similar action. Whether the interest ever reaches down into the compost and soil industry, remains to be seen.