If the idea of washing your hair with plastic disgusts you, you may want to take a second look at the ingredients in your shampoo.
A disturbing trend among companies producing personal care and cosmetic products (PCCP) has reared its head in recent years: They are creating products with high quantities of plastic ingredients. These plastic ingredients are very small, often invisible to the naked eye, and are typically referred to as "microplastics" or "microbeads." Different products contain different levels of microplastics, and they can range from less than 1 percent to over 90 percent microplastic. In other words, your favorite shower gel, with that luxurious, exfoliating microbead scrub, could contain as much plastic as the packaging it comes in.
So, why should you care? For one, microplastics can be present in nearly every product you use: deodorants, lipsticks, hair coloring, shaving cream, sunscreen, bug spray, moisturizers, face masks, baby care products, and more. Once you pour any of these products down your drain, their plastic ingredients can't be recycled and won't decompose in a wastewater treatment plant. When these non-degradable microplastics are dumped in our oceans, it is impossible to recover them and they can last for hundreds of years.
Fortunately, there are actions that can be taken. VICE Impact spoke with Heidi Savelli, Programme Officer for UN Environment, and an expert on this emerging issue.
VICE Impact: What unique challenges do microplastics present, that distinguish them from traditional, larger plastics?
Heidi Savelli: The problem with the primary microplastics, especially those in personal care and cosmetic products, is that you won't easily see them. Even if you take the product and test it against your skin you might feel some scrub effect, but it might not be easy to see the microplastics because they're very, very small. So the size is actually the problem, because when you're using these products they go into the drain and not much of that product is caught in wastewater treatment plants.
They are also plastics that are made to be nonrecoverable—there's absolutely no plan whatsoever to recover microplastics or prevent them from reaching the environment.
What problems does microplastic litter present?
There are many organisms in the ocean and other water bodies that might ingest them, thinking that they're food. One issue in general with plastics is that once they end up in the ocean, they act as a sponge for pollutants in the surrounding water and then you get an accumulation. So these pollutants can bind to the surface of the plastic, and they're absorbed. And once you have ingestion, there may be a risk of transfer [of chemicals into the tissue of aquatic organisms].
A lot more research is needed on that, but suffice to say that we know a lot of organisms are eating plastics that are ending up in oceans and that there are effects on growth. For many organisms it might be starvation, if what they eat does not pass through their systems easily.
Can microplastic litter affect human health?
It depends on how the microplastics enter the food chain. For most fish, you remove the guts and stomach, which might contain most of the microplastic they ingested, unless pollutants have been transferred to tissue. But then there are studies looking at mussels and clams, where you eat the entire animal, and they are filter feeders so they actually pick up and keep a lot of microplastics.
There was a study looking at the amount of microplastics that a person that likes mussels a lot might ingest on yearly level, which was about 11,000 particles. At the moment more research needs to be done to determine effects on human health.
What can consumers do to reduce their usage of products that contain microplastics?
There's an app called Beat the Microbead, that we've sponsored with the North Sea Foundation, and the Plastic Soup Foundation. The app helps consumers to know what's in their products. You take a picture of the product's bar code on the app, and that's linked to a database where companies provide information on the content of their products. So it's a way for consumers to easily get an idea of whether the product contains microplastics of any sort. It also lets you know if the company has taken any steps to phase out microplastics.
As of October last year, there were at least 56 companies that announced they were taking steps to phase out microplastics in their products, including Unilever, Body Shop and many more.
Are there larger regulations about microplastics?
In December 2015, the US put in place a law against microbeads, requiring them to be removed from products by 2017. Last year, Canada added microbeads to their list of toxic substances under their Environmental Protection Act. There are also discussions about [microplastic restrictions] within the European Union.
It's promising. We're choosing to highlight this issue because these are nonrecoverable plastics and there are natural alternatives. So it's quite unnecessary to still be using them.
Get informed some more about the UN Environment and VICE Impact's campaign against the over-consumption of non-biodegradable plastic materials.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity