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Win on plastic microbeads may bring new environmental problem

tyre particles and microfibres from clothing also problem

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robert99 robert99 Sweden Posts: 1360
1 4 Feb 2018

Face scrubs and toothpastes containing tiny plastic beads are set to disappear from Australian stores within months, but the products replacing them may pose a new environmental time-bomb, a leading scientist says.

It is two years since the nation's environment ministers agreed to seek a voluntary phase out of microbeads - minuscule plastic beads in soaps, face scrubs, toothpastes and other cosmetics and toiletries.

Once touted for their cleaning and exfoliating properties, microbeads – generally classed as smaller than 5 millimetres - were shown to be damaging oceans and waterways.

They can settle in deep ocean sediment as well as shallower waters, where they are ingested by sea life and enter the food chain.

Figures supplied to Fairfax Media by industry group Accord show 80 per cent of relevant mainstream manufacturers have stopped using microbeads. The remaining 20 per cent have committed to doing so by July 1 this year.

They include Unilever, Johnson & Johnson and The Body Shop. Coles, Woolwoths and Aldi have also phased out microbeads from their own-brand products.

Manufacturers of heavy-duty hand wash used by industry are the latest target of the campaign.

Jeff Angel, convener of the Boomerang Alliance, which represents 47 of Australia's leading community and environmental groups, described the progress as “world-leading”.

He called on the federal government to enshrine a microbead ban in law.

“We don’t want to see future governments or industry departing this voluntary scheme,” he said.

Manufacturers have largely replaced microbeads with natural substances such as silica, pumice, clays, polenta, rice powder and fruit kernels.

Internationally renowned microplastics expert Dr Mark Browne said tiny particles of non-plastic substances can still “cause problems for humans and wildlife”, as shown in studies involving rodents, marine worms and mussels.

He said particles can be inhaled or ingested and transfer into tissues via the lungs or gut. The body can then attack the particle and encase it in fibrotic material, leaving scar tissue. Cells, tissues and organs become damaged and the organism can die.

“We should be very worried about this and make sure products are tested for their safety before being released onto the market,” Dr Browne said.

Research should measure the effects of non-plastic particles and also determine if the microbead phase-out was causing fewer environmental problems – a push governments and industry had failed to support, he said.

“It’s crucial that we get together, find out what the particular problems are ... then implement solutions and test whether those solutions work,” Dr Browne said.

Accord spokesman Craig Brock said microbead replacement ingredients were “actively regulated” in Australia by the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme.

Fairfax Media has previously reported the scheme assesses just 3.3 per cent of new substances before use by industry, and the federal government is seeking to reduce this to 0.75 per cent.

About 30,000 substances used in Australia since before the regulatory scheme began in 1990 have not been assessed.

Mr Brock said the microbead replacement ingredients were biodegradable, and evidence showed tyre particles and microfibres from clothing were a larger problem for marine environments than microplastics or their substitutes.