OpinionMicrobeads a macro marine menace

Sometimes we are not spurred into action until a chance physical encounter.At our recent scientific conference in Muswellbrook the poster by UON PhD Student Hasintha Wijesekara graphically detailing his project on microbeads in biowastes caught my eye. This was because it was accompanied by a practical demonstration of the huge number of tiny plastic beads that are in use in products such as toothpastes, body scrubs, shampoos and many others.

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On display was a small vial with tens of thousands of beads extracted from one bottle of facial cleanser. Since their introduction into our households about 20 years ago, microbeads have become one of the biggest threats to marine wildlife because they are are too small to be captured and filtered out at the water treatment plant. They eventually end up in the ocean as indigestible targets for marine animals.Further, the plastic beads can accumulate dangerous toxins and heavy metals on their trip through our waste disposal network.

A typical usage of a facial scrub might flush 100,000 of these microbeads into the sewer and eventually into the marine environment.Along with plastic bags, microbeads are a major threat to our marine environment.These particles can be transferred to higher levels in the food chain, causing adverse effects and may serve as a global transport mechanism for accumulated contaminants such as persistent organic pollutants.

Many countries, including Australia, are encouraging industry to phase out microbead use, but progress is slow.I tried the free app, Beat the Microbead, and found that many of the barcodes on bottles in my bathroom were not recognised, but I commend it to you as a useful addition to your smartphone.

Professor Tim Roberts is the director of the Tom Farrell Institute for the Environment, at the University of Newcastle

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