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The following article by David Suzuki (with contributions by Senior Editor Ian Hanington) is entitled Microbeads are a sign of our plastic consumer madness. It has been circulated by email by the David Suzuki Foundation. “Plastic has made life more convenient, but many of us remember a time when we got along fine without it,” observes Suzuki. I’m pleased to publish Plastic Madness on BoomerWarrior. (Rolly Montpellier, Managing Editor).

Plastic Madness

Plastic Madness, boomer warrior
Microbeads, or microplastics, are used in products like facial scrubs and toothpaste.
Photograph by: Dan Janisse, Postmedia News Files , Vancouver Sun

How much are whiter teeth and smoother skin worth to you? Are they worth the water and fish in the Great Lakes? The cormorants that nest along the shore? The coral reefs that provide refuge and habitat for so much ocean life? Are they worth the oceans that give us half the oxygen we breathe, or the myriad other creatures the seas support?

If you use personal-care products such as exfoliators, body scrubs and toothpastes containing microbeads, those are the costs you could be paying. The tiny bits of plastic — less than five millimetres in diameter, and usually from one-third to one millimetre — are used as scrubbing agents. Now they’re turning up everywhere, especially in oceans, lakes and along shorelines. They aren’t biodegradable.

50 microplastics_spoon_5gyres.jpg.650x0_q70_crop-smart
© Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres. Microplastics – Lake Michigan.

Research by the 5 Gyres Institute found an average of 43,000 beads per square kilometre in the Great Lakes, with concentrations averaging 466,000 near cities. Tests on fish from Lake Erie found an average of 20 pieces of plastic in medium-sized fish and eight in small fish. Cormorants, which eat fish, had an average of 44 pieces of plastic each. Microplastics have been found in the oceans and even under Arctic sea ice. Scientists at Australia’s James Cook University found corals starving after eating the tiny beads, their digestive systems blocked.

It’s not just the plastic that harms animals; the beads absorb toxic chemicals, making them poisonous to any creature that mistakes them for food or that eats another that has ingested the plastic — all the way up the food chain. Because humans eat fish and other animals, these toxins can end up in our bodies, where they can alter hormones and cause other health problems.

Plastic Madness, boomer warrior
CC BY 3.0 Rafael Rozendaal toothpaste

It’s a high price to pay for limited benefits from unnecessary personal care products. Exfoliators and scrubs can use any number of harmless natural ingredients, including baking soda, oatmeal, ground seeds, sea salt and even coffee grounds. Microbeads are not only pointless in toothpaste; they can be harmful. Dentists and hygienists are finding plastic particles embedded under people’s gum lines, which can cause inflammation and infection.

The folly of producing and marketing products without adequate regulatory oversight and consideration of long-term consequences makes you shake your head. As Great Lakes study researcher Sherri Mason told the Ottawa Citizen, producers haven’t given much thought to anything beyond the fact that the beads wouldn’t clog drains. “There wasn’t that forethought, which is often the trouble with man and the environment,” she said.

Microbeads illustrate the excesses of marketing and consumerism, but they’re only part of the problem. Most plastics eventually break down into microparticles, often ending up in oceans and other waters, where they’re eaten by organisms ranging from tiny plankton to large whales. Some plastic has even started to fuse with rocks, creating a substance new to our planet that scientists call “plastiglomerate”.

According to British Antarctic Survey scientist David Barnes, “One of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting recent changes to the surface of our planet is the accumulation and fragmentation of plastics.”

That’s astounding, considering mass production and widespread use of synthetic, mostly petroleum-based plastics only began in the 1940s. Barnes and other researchers who compiled research from around the world say more plastic was produced in the first decade of this century than in the entire previous hundred years.

Microbeads are among the newer developments in the brief history of our plastic lifestyle. The 5 Gyres Institute launched a campaign asking companies to remove them from products. So far, L’Oreal, The Body Shop, Colgate-Palmolive, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble have agreed to do so. Several U.S. states and European countries are planning to ban the beads, and Environment Canada is studying the problem. The federal NDP has introduced a motion to ban them here.

As consumers, we can avoid products containing microbeads and put pressure on companies and governments to end their use (5 Gyres has an online petition). And, because more than a third of all plastic is disposable packaging, such as bags and bottles, we can and must limit our overall use, and reuse or recycle any that we do use.

Plastic has made life more convenient, but many of us remember a time when we got along fine without it.

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  1. I just don’t know what is wrong with industry, especially in the realms of cleaning products, toiletries and cosmetics. Ever since the second World War, the Chemical
    Industry, largely driven by the experimentation with petroleum products, has convinced everyone that they must have “this” or “that” product to have the best possible cleanser, cream or potion. It is “hocus, pocus” nonsense to make use of petroleum by-products and make lots of money from unwary (trusting) consumers. Meanwhile the world is being poisoned, people get cancers, and animals are disappearing forever.

    Microbead products are one of the most insideous and unnecessary inventions in a long line of useless expensive products. If our governments weren’t so busy cosying up to industry CEO’s, they might see that their role is to stop this kind of thing, not encourage it!

    Worse, media outlets, who rely on advertising to fund their programs, allow advertisers to make the most outrageous claims about consumer products made by the petrochemical industry. ‘This will make your hair shine, your skin fresh and defoliated,’ should be a warning to most people that the product is an alkaline solution designed to strip every bit of natural oil from your body. Worse, you are doubly hit with a cocktail of chemical perfumes that infiltrate a now defensless skin. So, the body makes more natural oil to combat it and pretty soon you’ve got a vicious cycle of pouring chemicals over your body, just to look normal.

    It all ends up in the water (no, the water treatment plants don’t remove it) and eventually inside every living animal (including us). We must be mad to be misled by all of this.

    Oh and if you think shampoo is OK? Have you ever looked at a dogs paw pads if it is regularly “Shampoo’d? They will be cracked (the more shampoo, the worse they will be!). Dogs that are washed in plain water, even if they walk a lot on concrete, will have smooth pads (no cracks). Cracks lead to infections and foot pain.

    Do yourself,( and your children and pets) a favour and start weaning yourself off commercial products and find natural replacements. The alternatives are safer, and mostly cheaper (unless you use pure Argon oil as a skin moisturiser – coconut oil is a much cheaper alternative…add a few drops of lavender oil and you have a natural antibacterial oil with some super skin enhancing properties). The internet is full of natural replacements for even your toughest cleaning jobs for a fraction of the chemical company cost. By switching, you are making life healthier for yourself, and the environment.

  2. Hi Colette,

    I retain this quote from your comments, “Microbead products are one of the most insidious and unnecessary inventions in a long line of useless expensive products.” The fact is that there are thousands of those products on the market. The market of course is largely created by marketing and less by need. How many of these “useless products” would people buy if there was no marketing? Glib marketers have a way of creating a need for something when none really exists.

    I’ve just checked a face product that I’ve been using and yes it has microbeads. This face scrub is apparently good for helping me look younger. It doesn’t work and it will be disposed of at the local disposal site for chemicals.

    Irresponsible consumerism is rampant. How many people keep buying the latest fashions to add to a closet already full of clothes? Or buying the latest techno gadget? Lining up to be the first to buy the next version of the IPhone or the IPad?

    Microbeads, microplastics, packaging, water bottles – all byproducts of a consumer product civilization now spreading to the developing world. We are choking on plastics.

    • Yes Rolly, I’m afraid we have all been conned into believing all these products must be safe, do what they say on the tin, and will make our lives better somehow. The marketing is pretty slick, and somehow makes you feel inadequate if you are not buying these things to enhance your life.

      We must realise, that our health comes directly from our air, food and water, not from anything out of a bottle magic chemicals. Unfortunately, there is no ‘magic’ to stop the aging process, but nor should there be. As the genetic DNA and RNA codes in the creation of new genetic strands, there are more chances of mutations as we age (some scientists say this can contribute to cancers and abnormal growths). Aging is a natural process that slows down our genetic code replication. We get wrinkles, changing body structure, and often feel more taxed and tired than when we are younger. It is normal and actually can protect us from the horrors of a body that begins to mutate…. I think aging is the better of the options and actually, people wear their personalities in their wrinkles. We should all do so proudly.

      I am reminded of how many rich members of the Royal Courts died in the Sixteenth Century purely because of the ‘fashion’ of wearing white powder on their faces. The whiteness came from lead and the powder inflicted most with lead poisoning. A similar trend is happening in the Far East today. Companies like UniLever produce cosmetics for Asians with whitening, to make their skin lighter….accepted by everyone as a necessary thing if one wants to look ‘affluent.’ Every cream, lotion and potion on supermarket shelves has the potential to cause harm. I have met an Asian lady who used one of these products some years ago…she ended up with chemical burns. Most sunscreens contain Titanium Dioxiide, a potentially carcinogenic ingredient. We have all become slaves to the chemical companies!

      • Slaves to the chemical companies indeed. You sent me a link a few weeks back about the ubiquitousness of chemicals in our lives but I’ve lost that link. Can you share it here?

        Many thanks for your ongoing participation. And is ubiquitousness even a word?


          Ubiquitousness may not be a word .However, the English language is always evolving and it sounds pretty good to me (lol).

          I have been hiding on a housesitting assignment in Spain so have been experimenting with trying to get away from using shampoo (believe me, it is not for the feint-hearted). Having long hair presents a set of problems that short hair doesn’t. My husband has been shampoo free for months (solving a dermatits problem), and he washes just with hot water – nothing else. His hair is soft and shiny with no greasiness ( but he doesn’t have much hair…and a rather enlarging bald spot). Mine, on the other hand looks ok, but feels as if it is encased in animal fat (my own natural oils and skin cells – ugh). Four weeks haven’t brought much change to my own natural balance.

          Water alone, doesn’t work for me! I have been trying different combinations of Sodium Bicarbonate (I don’t recommend for long hair), coconut oil, bar soap (castille) and vinegar (mainly for the end rinse). I have snuck in a tiny bit of shampoo when things feel desparate. So far, I’ve not found the magic formula – but haven’t given up yet. I am convinced that we can do without many of the chemicals in our lives.

          Having said all that…I am dismayed by my husband running around with fly spray (choking me in the process), because he cannot abide the continuous parade of house flies here on the Costa Del Sol. Worse… The dog we are looking after is getting bitten by so many ticks each walk, (I remove at least three a day), I’ve had to give her Frontline treatments (Fipronil), in the hope she doesn’t aquire some tick borne disease.
          While that might sound comical (and there is a farcical side to it), the reality is, that global warming is creating insect resistance to our nasty poisons. We are having to develop worse poisons just to ‘stand still.’

          Monsanto (DDT and Agent Orange were early success stories) develops all kinds of things supposed to help us …’
          Glyphosate (N-(phosphonomethyl) is the herbicide that Monsanto develops its GM crops for withstanding this toxic chemical, so that farmers don’t need to worry about choking weeds, and get larger harvests… But like all things chemically created, nature finds a way around the ‘fix.’ The concentrations of toxic stuff goes up!

          If we don’t find a way to live in balance with nature, we are ultimately doomed to poisoning ourselves. I have visions of dying of asphyxiation from fly spray, mosquito repellent, and tick and flea treatments!

  3. I’m amazed at your extensive knowledge of chemicals which surround us in everyday activities. Escaping their use can be quite a challenge as you comically point out.

    Today is a particularly bad day with black flies and mosquitoes where I live in cottage country in Ontario. I wear a net hat/thing when I work outside and pull up my socks over my pants to protect ankles for their vicious bites. Not a particularly welcoming site to be sure but it seems to work.

    Which reminds me, I have to get outside to do some yard stuff.


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