Microplastics and Microbeads: What's the Problem? | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Microplastics and Microbeads: What’s the Problem?

Life&Style writer Bethany Ball discusses the environmental impacts of using glitter

Do you remember, as a child, going to school and having a crafting cupboard full of coloured paper, stencils, crayons and glitter…? Using glitter was fun, but it was always very messy, and during the process of creating a glistening masterpiece, glitter-coated hands would be washed multiple times. It was not until recently that the environmental harm of washing glitter down the drain is becoming known. Glitter is big news within the current media, most likely as a result of the boom in glitter use by cosmetic industries.  With trends like ‘mermaid’ and ‘unicorn’ themed looks, many cosmetic companies now sell products like glitter eye shadows and sparkling bath bombs.

The problem with glitter is that it is a plastic, just cut into very tiny, shiny shapes, which, when combined in a large mass, creates holographic heaven. You may be familiar with another type of microplastic called microbeads, which are already causing harm in our oceans. With scientific research on this thriving and the recent ban on them in the UK, some scientists have turned their attention towards affects of other microplastics, notably glitter. To put into perspective just how much of an issue microplastics are, at the current rate, it is predicted that the ocean will contain more plastics than fish by 2050, according to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation. Also, LUSH claim, if you shower with a body wash containing microplastics, you could be releasing up to 100,000 microplastics into the oceans.

According to CNN, microplastics (which measure less than 5mm) pollute marine environments, leech chemicals into the water and pose harm to marine life if they are ingested. National Geographic state that microplastics have been located from the oceans the surface to the deep sea floor. This is a problem because it’s it easily consumed by plankton, fish, shellfish, seabirds, and other marine life. These plastic bits then collect in their stomachs, leaving little room for actual food, which causes them to die of starvation. Plastic does not degrade; it just gets eaten by the smallest creatures on the food chain, like Giant Larvaceans. Unfortunately, being filter feeders, they cannot avoid the tiny bits of plastic floating in the water.

Luckily, according to the Guardian, the UK banned microbead production in January 2018, and the US banned them in 2015. But no formal ban has been mentioned in regards to glitter, but some scientists like Dr. Trisia Farrelly, an environmental anthropologist from New Zealand, is calling for a ban on all glitter. But others say this is premature, given the limited research. However, some people and companies are increasingly aware of the harmful nature of glitter and are beginning to change their approach to it. According to National Geographic, “19 British pre-schools have stopped using glitter in art projects in a bid to save the oceans.” Companies like LUSH have replaced plastic glitter used in its products—made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET)—with synthetic mica, mineral glitter, and starched-based lusters. Additionally, according to the BBC, some schools and companies are switching to eco-glitter made from Eucalyptus tree extract and aluminium. The Eucalyptus is made thin then cut into circles, a thin layer of coloured aluminium is then sprayed on.  The good news is it’s not expensive either.

Currently in my fourth year at University, studying a distance learning MA in Military History


3rd March 2018 at 9:00 am

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