Flea Bite Sized Destruction: Microbeads

It’s impossible to imagine what life would have been without plastics. In today’s day and age, these multipurpose materials have become an indispensable utility. Yet, we rarely pause to consider exactly how much we know about these substances that make up almost everything, from toothbrush bristles to knee implants.

Plastics come in all shapes and sizes, and those with dimensions in the order of a few millimeters or less are termed ‘microplastics’, which are classified into two types. Primary microplastics are intentionally manufactured to be of the micro size, whereas secondary microplastics are those that result due to the fragmentation of larger chunks of plastic by physical or chemical processes.

Mainly composed of polyethylene and polypropylene, microplastics are found in objects of everyday use. Ever notice those rough tiny beads present in your face-scrubs and washes that promise to exfoliate your skin to reveal a glowing face? A single tube of that contains around 350,000 of these ‘microbeads’. These are also present in toothpaste and body scrubs. Even clothing, especially fleece, contains up to 20,000 fibres of microplastic. Apart from wide commercial usage, microplastics also find various industrial uses.

Then why is it that these materials have come under immense scrutiny from environmental organisations worldwide?

The answer lies in the very attribute that offers them such versatility – their size. Water treatment processes are responsible for filtering out large debris but the minute size of the microplastics allows them to pass through undetected, and get released directly into water bodies. Being non-biodegradable in nature, they swirl around perpetually carried by the tide around the world.

According to a recent study, more than a quarter of all fish contain plastics in their gut. The chemicals in these can potentially cause poisoning, infertility, and genetic disruption in marine life, and decrease their energy-carrying capacity. Upon ingestion, these harmful substances can make their way up the trophic level to us – humans. Even breathing in these microplastics suspended in the atmosphere can cause severe respiratory ailments.

Several states in the United States have already imposed a ban on the use of products containing microplastics. Large multinational companies such as Colgate-Palmolive, L’Oreal, and Johnson & Johnson have taken the pledge to stop using microbeads in their products. With bans beginning to take effect in other countries, it’s time India puts this issue on the frontline and institutes a ban itself.

An app called ‘Beat the Microbead’ has been developed, which allows the user to scan the barcodes of various products and informs them about its microplastic content.

Having such a harmful effect on life in general, it’s high time we start being vigilant about the amount of plastic (especially microplastic) waste we discard into the environment. Reading labels, refusing to buy products that contain microbeads, and spreading awareness about their harmful effects, are all responsible steps towards a cleaner and safer tomorrow.

-Pujan Parikh for MTTN


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