Australia’s two biggest supermarket chains have pledged to stop stocking beauty products containing “hazardous” microbeads as pressure mounts for the federal government to immediately ban their use.
The beads, also known as microplastics, have recently been banned in the United States and can be commonly found in soaps, face scrubs and toothpastes.
Trillions of the “hazardous” beads wash into the world’s waterways each year and environmentalists said they created significant damage to Australia’s water systems.
Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt told the ABC’s 7:30 program that Coles and Woolworths had committed to remove the products containing microbeads by 2017.
“I have to confess, it’s one of those issues which emerged later than it should have,” Mr Hunt said.
“We want to work with industry to do this. Already Coles and Woolworths have responded and committed to banning microbeads from their shelves by the end of 2017.
“But we want to see a full national phase out.”
Scientists estimated there are about 300,000 microbeads in an average bottle of face scrub.
The beads were usually labelled as polyethylene in the product ingredients or HDPE (high-density polyethylene), or even PEHD.
Products deemed to contain a high amount of microbeads by monitor group Beat The Microbead include ‘Clean & Clear Blackhead Clearing Cleanser’, ‘Johnson’s Daily Essentials 3 in 1 Blackhead Scrub’ and ‘Neutrogena Deep Clean Fresh Foaming Scrub’.
For a comprehensive list of products containing microbeads, click here
Environmentalists pressure government
Environmental activist Jon Dee is leading a campaign to ban the production of microbeads in Australia.
“Most people you talk to have no idea that the personal care products they are using contain plastic microbeads,” he told 7:30.
“People think they contain exfoliants like apricot kernels and walnut shells and other natural ingredients but the reality is that these products contain microbeads that are so small that they get through the waste water treatment plants and end up in our waterways and harbours.”
Mr Dee said the government’s stance was not yet strong enough, and that Australia should commit to a United States-style ban which will ensure no products contain microbeads by the end of 2018.
Manufacturers such as Unilever, Johnson & Johnson and The Body Shop have been working to find alternative materials to use in their products.
7:30 spoke to scientists from the University of Sydney who had found microplastics inside fish.
Professor Emma Johnson said one of the sites she took samples from in Sydney Harbour had fish which contained more plastic than samples taken from water near a former plastics factory in Sweden.
“The problem with microplastics is that once they are in the waterway and in the sediments, we can’t get them out,” Prof Johnston said.
“There is no way of filtering all the sediments of every harbour in Australia to remove those plastics.”
Prof Johnston said microbeads had been found from the Arctic to the deep sea in hundreds of organisms.
“I think it’s time that we removed them from all non-essential products,” she said.
“The full extent of their toxicity is still unknown.”
Obama leads the way on microbead ban
US President Barack Obama recently pushed through measures to ban microbeads, as part of his plan to leave the country with better environmental legislation as he exits office.
The US Senate passed the bill in late 2015, and by early 2016 all beauty products in the country with microbeads will start being phased out.
University of California ecology experts Chelsea Rochman and Sara Kross have conducted research on the effects of microbeads on the environment and said they were “hazardous” for years.
“[Microbeads] can persist in nature for decades to hundreds of years, becoming increasingly hazardous as they accumulate a cocktail of chemical pollutants from surrounding water,” the pair told The Conversation.
“Microbeads represent one of the most difficult-to-monitor and difficult-to-clean, yet easy-to-solve, components of the global microplastic debris problem in our marine environments.”
– with ABC