We’ve all heard of microplastics - teeny tiny bits of plastic that are often smaller than the eye can see, that are so pervasive in the environment that they are in the air we breath, the water we drink (even bottled water) and the food we eat. Not all of these bits of microplastic are from the break-up of larger fragments, in fact, many of them are present in our everyday hygiene and cosmetic products as plastic microbeads!

What can I do?

Thankfully, in South Africa, the proposal to ban microbeads from cosmetics is pending and many such products have already been pulled from the shelves.  Yet, many manufacturers still choose to use these harmful microbeads to bulk up their products and increase profit margins.

There are over 500 types of plastic used in the manufacturing of microbeads - but don’t worry, there’s an app that can scan ingredients lists and spot them! Read on and find out where to download this handy piece of technology.

Simply download the Beat The Microbead App! It has a built-in camera function that you can simply point at the ingredients section of any product and it will check if it contains plastic. We recommend using this on all personal hygiene products, household cleaners and cosmetics.

Using the Beat the Microbead app, we spotted 5 different types of microplastics in this common men's bodywash.

So how do you spot microbeads in the ingredients, without using the app? Companies don’t make it easy, but as a rule-of-thumb, you should try to check the ingredients of products that claim to “exfoliate” or “scrub”. Start by looking at the first few ingredients on the bottle (these are the ones that make up the bulk of the product and usually include the microbeads). Common chemicals used in South Africa are “polyethene” and “acrylates copolymer” as shown in the examples below. Other names to look out for are “acrylates crosspolymer”, polylactic acid (normal “lactic acid” is fine), “polypropylene”, “polystyrene”, “nylon”, “polyurethane” and “polymethyl methacrylate”.

You don’t need to check every bottle in the shop! Simply have a look at your favourite brands that you already have at home and if they are microbead free, stick with them. If they do contain microplastic beads - give them a skip and try something environmentally better!

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Only one type of microplastic - but it is high up on the list! After water, the next most abundant ingredient in this face scrub is plastic!

Why does it matter?

The smaller the plastic particles, the harder it is to remove them from the environment. Microbeads are just that - micro! So, once they are in our waterways there is a very slim chance that we will be able to filter them out. And remember, all drains lead to the ocean, including those from your house.

Once in the ecosystem, they become the food source for a myriad of small animals, even filter feeders. Ultimately, through the food web, they end up on our plates.

Microbeads, like other plastics, are essentially sponges for toxic chemicals and concentrate them - so toxic substances that are normally found in insignificant amounts in the environments, DDT for example, can accumulate by attaching to the plastic and be passed on to the animals that consume them. Because microbeads are so tiny, they are eaten by the tiniest animals at the bottom of the food chain, and the toxins gradually increase as these animals are eaten by others and so on - a process called bioaccumulation.

Myth-busting: All foreign particles are extracted from our wastewater

You might think that because microbeads go down your drain that they end up being filtered out before the water gets to the ocean - but you’d be wrong…

It is estimated that about 50 000 litres of raw or partially treated sewage flow into South African rivers every minute. Of the 824 municipal sewerage plants country-wide, only about 60 are releasing clean water. But even if our sewerage system was working absolutely perfectly, microbeads and microplastics are too small for these systems to remove from the water. So, they end up in our rivers, and from there end up in the ocean. This is also a problem when it comes to washing our clothes...but more on that later!

Who can I follow?

An organisation called Beat The Microbead is working hard to get microbeads banned with varying degrees of success around the world. You can now download their app to help scan your products and cosmetics for microbead!

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