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Microbeads, Small But Dangerous
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Recently, a seagull was found dead at a shore in Germany. Researchers dissected its body and found several plastic fragments. These fragments were mainly classified as “microbeads,” which have recently been prohibited in cosmetic products by the Korean government starting from 2017. Although still unfamiliar to many people in Korea, it is contained in products made by famous cosmetics brands including Amore Pacific, Clean & Clear, and Aveeno. The Sungkyun times (SKT) informs Kingos about microbeads and arouses public attention towards microbeads.

What are microbeads?

Microbeads are a type of primary microplastics, usually smaller than five millimeters. Microplastics are divided into two classes: primary and secondary. Primary microplastics are those manufactured at a micro size. Secondary microplastics arise from the breakdown of larger plastic waste such as carrier bags and product packaging. As mentioned above, microbeads are generally primary microplastics that are added to everyday cosmetic products including face wash, toothpaste, abrasive cleaners, and many more. Microbeads are usually more effective in terms of both expense and detergency than natural ingredients like seeds and grains, bringing about their excessive use by business enterprises.

Microbeads Found in Toothpaste / khnews.kheraldm.com, news.naver.com

Dangers of Microbeads

Even though one microbead is a small piece of plastic, its effect on the environment is tremendous. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) named microbeads as “the toxic time bombs,” which implies that they have a number of dangerous aspects. Microbeads carry a variety of toxic materials to the ocean through the process of leaching, adsorption, and desorption. There are various types of toxic chemicals used when manufacturing microbeads. These chemicals usually come out while they are in the water, in a process called leaching. Adsorption is a phenomenon in which microbeads attract chemicals as they flow through water. Some of these chemicals can be toxic, such as Polychlorobiphenyl (PCB), Para-Aminohippuric Acid (PAH), Triclosan, and especially Bisphenol A, one of the base materials of microbeads, which can disturb the endocrine system of animals. The chemicals attached to the microbeads fall apart in the ocean.

It might seem that only ocean water will be contaminated. The impact of microbeads, however, is not just confined to marine life, but could eventually affect humans. When microbeads are underwater, planktons misidentify them as food and consume them. Animals that prey upon planktons are then affected by the microbeads, and this cycle continues along the food chain until they reach humans. Recently, scientists found that over 18% of fish specimens in the Mediterranean Sea had plastic fragments in their stomachs, with an average of 21 fragments per fish.

How Microbeads Reach Humans Along the Food Chain / jtbc.joins.com

In 150 ml of facial cleanser, there are up to 2.8 million microbeads. According to a Eunomia Marine Litter Report (Study to Support the Development of Measures to Combat a Range of Marine Litter Sources) for the European Commission, the number of cosmetic microbeads flowing into the oceans of Europe every year is around 8,627 tons. Moreover, microbeads are so small that they cannot be filtered out during water decontamination processes. In the same way plastics are not biodegradable, microbeads also do not decompose in nature. Sea animals that swallow several microbeads will eventually suffer from illnesses such as growth and reproductive failures, intestinal obstruction, and oxidative stress. In addition, according to Frank Kelly, a professor of Environmental Health at King’s College London, there is a possibility that some of the microbeads would be incorporated into the air, floating around in the atmosphere until humans breathe them in.

What has been done to prohibit microbeads?

UNEP

To celebrate the World Oceans Day on June 8, 2015, the UNEP published a report that called upon the prohibition of microplastics used in cosmetic products. It warned that microplastics flowing into oceans could destroy marine ecosystems and can be fatal to humans.

Foreign Countries

The United States (US) is a country that first prohibited the usage of microbeads in November 2015. The US Congress passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act. As a result, the selling and distributing of cleansers with microbeads will be completely banned starting from mid-2017. Other than the US, Canada, Taiwan, Australia, the Netherlands, and Sweden are also discussing the introduction of regulations for microbeads. Famous cosmetics brands including L’Oreal and Procter & Gamble announced that they will stop using microbeads in their cosmetic products by the end of 2017 as well.

What about Korea?

According to “A Study on Microplastic Pollution in the Coastal Environments” by the Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology (KIOST), the average density of microplastics in 12 Korean seashores is about 13 times higher than the global average, which means that the countermeasures are more urgent in Korea than in any other country. The Ministry of Environment included additional articles about microplastics to a master plan for the preservation, management, and utilization of biological resources, but the regulation did not work out properly.

In order to pressure the government to regulate microbeads strictly, Greenpeace Korea started a petition both online and offline to push microbeads regulations forward quickly. Additionally, they started the campaign “My Little Plastic,” which introduces the problem of microbeads and urges related ministries to cooperate for a solution. On August 9, as part of this campaign, Greenpeace activists in Korea rode boats pulling on balloons shaped like huge toothpaste, scrub gel, and cleansing foam, and presented the reality that microbeads are polluting rivers and seas. Activists who represented companies threw microbead models into the Han River, while activists representing the government officials on the same boat ignored them as a performance to blame the delayed response of the government and point out the flaws of company regulations.

As a result, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety prepared a revision plan that would prohibit the use of microbeads in cosmetic products, reestablishing the definition of microplastics and classifying them as prohibited materials. This change will be applied to manufacturers and their products, both manufactured and imported, starting from July 2017. Moreover, starting from July 2018, the selling of microplastics will be completely banned. Additionally, Amore Pacific and LG Household & Health Care Ltd., which took up about 61.8% of market shares combined in cosmetics and household items in 2015, promised to stop using microbeads in their products. Another attempt to prohibit microbeads is the Pure Shower Campaign jointly conducted by the UNEP National Committee for the Republic of Korea and cosmetics brand Milk & Co. in an effort to announce the danger of microbeads and ten promises to save the Earth.

Let’s Check Our Cosmetic Products!

1) Check if there are any particles in your toothpastes, scrub gels, or body washes

2) Check the ingredients in the product

If the product contains Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), Polymethyl Metacrylate (PMMA) or Nylon, go to the next step.

3) Check if the particles melt

Rub up a small amount of the product in your hand and check for residue.

4) Check if any particles are left

If particles do not melt and remain as beads, especially those with bright coloration, those particles are most likely to be microbeads. If you send a picture of the particles to Greenpeace, you may question about the product as a consumer and urge the companies to stop manufacturing it.

For more information, visit www.beatthemicrobead.org or download an application “Beat the Microbead” and check the list of companies and products that contain microbeads.

Although there are many efforts from countries and companies to prohibit the use of microbeads, there are still too many microbeads flowing into the oceans. The small amount that we use while washing seems like nothing to worry about, but as the poem says, “little drops of water […] make the mighty ocean.” Microbeads will pile up to a huge amount of plastics which will wreak havoc on the environment. Therefore, each Kingo should keep their eyes open to microbeads to save the environment.

남윤경  dbsrud082396@gmail.com

<저작권자 © THE SUNGKYUN TIMES, 무단 전재 및 재배포 금지>

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