330,000. This is the amount of microbeads contained in one tube of facial wash (OTTAWA CITIZEN Aug 17 2014).
Microbeads are very tiny plastic beads with a size ranging from 5 µm to 1 mm (Elias 2017): they are one type of microplastic.
They are often used to strengthen the cleansing of personal care products such as facial wash, toothpaste, and body shampoo. They are also often known as “scrub grains”. The glitter in cosmetics is also from microbeads (Fendall & Sewell 2009).
Whenever you wash your face or brush your teeth, the microbeads you use drain away, then run into the sewer and reaching the sewage treatment plant.
However, because microbeads are very tiny, some of them escape from the sewage treatment plant and enter the ocean with the treated water (Elias 2017).
In the U.S., as of 2015, 8 trillion microbeads per day flowed into the hydrosphere (Rochman et al. 2015). Supposing the diameter of the microbeads is 100µm, if we spread out all the microbeads that are drained into the U.S. every day, the resulting area would cover more than 300 tennis courts (Rochman 2015).
The terrifying fact about microbeads is that when they enter the ocean, they turn into a carrier of contaminated substances. Microbeads absorb contaminated substances that have remained in the ocean, just like tiny sponges (Teuten et al. 2009, Engler 2012).
The results of a study have shown that microbeads can be ingested by small animals such as zooplankton, which are at the bottom of the food chain (Cole et al. 2013).
Therefore, it is possible that microbeads that have absorbed contaminated substance are eaten by zooplankton, and that these zooplankton are eaten by fish, and eventually these fish end up on our dinner table (Thompson 2015).
Even though high-spec sewage treatment plants can remove 98-99% of microbeads, they can’t capture 100%. If a huge amount of sewage is treated in that plant everyday, even a few percent of escaped microbeads become a large amount (Horton et al. 2017).
According to recent research in California, by adding a 125µm filter to the process of sewage treatment, it is possible to remove almost all the microbeads (Carr et al. 2016). However, the number of countries that are able to implement these high-spec sewage treatment plants is quite limited. The reality is that, in most countries, sewage is untreated and just drains into the river or sea.
Research into the sewage treatment ability of 183 countries and regions showed that the higher their average income, the higher the ability for treatment they tended to have. It also showed that the ability of treatment was the worst among the countries in central and south America, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia (Malik et al. 2015).
However, once there is severe rain, a huge amount of rainwater and the drainage of daily life come together and drain in to the sewers. Then, no matter how high-spec the treatment plant is, the amount of sewage overwhelms its capacity and huge amounts of microbeads can escape the treatment plant (UNEP and GRID-Arendal 2016).
Microbeads occupy only 1% of marine plastic debris that has been discarded into the sea (Green Alliance). Although its proportion is quite small – the amount of all of the marine plastic debris is more than 8 million tons annually – the amount of microbeads cannot be ignored (Jambeck et al. 2015).
In the U.S., President Obama has signed the Microbeads Ban, and the production of personal care products containing microbeads ended in July, 2017. The sale of these products will also be terminated in July, 2018 (U.S. Food & Drug).
Taiwan is the first country in Asia to decide to prohibit sales of personal care products containing microbeads (NNA ASIA Aug 25 2016). It will likely stop the import and production of these products in 2018, and the sale thereof in 2020.