Posted by Rick Civelli | 01.02.2013 | Conservation

Take a Stand with Unilever and Eliminate Microplastic Beads

A recent announcement in the consumer products world marked a major victory in the battle again plastics today. Unilever Global announced this week that they will be phasing out the use of microplastics in their body soaps, scrubs, and gels. This major company which brings us famous brands like Dove, Vaseline, Axe, St. Ives, TreSemme, and Ponds, will be completely microplastic-free by 2015.

Plastic usage has been increasing since the 1950s, with around 80 million metric tons of polyethylene made each year. Polyethylene is created by the linkage of many ethyl groups (C2H4), and is used in the production of many familiar products, most familiarly the dreaded plastic bags. In the huge plastic market expansion, these polymers occasionally pop up in some unlikely, and unnecessary, places – namely our personal cleaning products. Microplastics, also known as polyethylene beads, have slowly crept their way into our face scrubs and shower gels claiming to provide extra exfoliation.

A large part of their attraction is the bright colors they appear in, which can be quite eye-catching. Despite their visual appeal, the plastics are not necessary. There are naturally occurring exfoliants that can do the same work of the plastics. And these natural products will prove far less environmentally damaging. Polyethylene beads eventually get washed down the shower or sink. They are then most likely transported to water treatment facilities, but these facilities are not equipped to process the microplastics. Therefore, they usually make their way into our waterways and ultimately the ocean.

Over the past half a century that plastics have been transforming our lives, they have also been altering the lives of many organisms that call the ocean home. Plastics do not biodegrade, but instead photodegrade, meaning that they break down into smaller pieces without actually going away. This means that as plastic pieces gets smaller and smaller, they can be ingested by smaller and smaller organisms allowing these hazardous chemicals to infiltrate almost all levels of the food chain. In addition to the complications resulting from the chemical composition, animals can frequently become entangled in plastic bits or swallowed plastics can become impacted in their digestive tracts inhibiting digestion.

We applaud Unilever taking a stand, and now it’s time to ask the other corporations to follow suit. Pressure companies like Proctor and Gamble, Johnson and Johnson, and Nestle to phase-out similar polyethylene beads from their products.