Microbeads are plastic beads measuring less than 5mm in diameter. They’re manufactured for use in products like facial scrubs and toothpastes, giving them texture, acting as an abrasive or providing visual interest.
Once they’re rinsed down the drain, however, they aren’t removed at wastewater treatment plants, and don’t biodegrade. Instead, says University of Canterbury senior lecturer in the Department of Chemistry, Dr Sally Gaw, they accumulate in the environment.
“Aquatic animals including fish and shellfish can ingest microplastics and animals may mistake them for food as they can look like prey items,” she says. “Ingesting microplastics can trick animals into feeling full, causing starvation and microplastics can damage digestive tracts affecting the health of the animals. In addition, microplastics can concentrate contaminants from the water which may be transferred to the animals when they ingest microplastics.”
Gaw says that banning microbeads in personal care products is a great step forward, but warns that further steps will be required to reduce the enormous volume of plastics entering our oceans each year.
The Government says the scope of the ban has yet to be defined as limited information exists on which products contain microbeads in New Zealand.
This poses a potential problem for retailers seeking to comply with the ban on the sale of these products – when we asked a selection of Kiwi retailers how many products containing microbeads were currently on their shelves, Countdown’s communications team said the retailer had phased out plastic microbeads from its own-brand products from the end of 2015, but did not seek information from external brands as to whether their products did or did not contain microbeads.
“As the retailer, we have ongoing discussions with our suppliers about any consumer concerns regarding their products - we'll obviously ensure they are aware of the government's proposed ban so they can decide what stance they will take with their own products, and of course we would expect that any product on our shelf complies with NZ legislation,” says Countdown’s spokesperson.
Antoinette Laird, head of external relations, Foodstuffs (NZ) Ltd, says Foodstuffs has been engaging with its external suppliers of personal care products over the last year to phase out the inclusion of microbeads in their products.
“The majority of our suppliers have committed to work with us on bringing the changeover into effect in the coming months,” Laird says. “The Government’s announcement reflects changes seen internationally and we agree, it is great news for the environment.”
She says Foodstuffs’ own-brand labels Pams and Budget had never had plastic microbeads in any of their products.
Lucy Kebbell, chair of boutique grocery chain Commonsense Organics, says that even though consumer demand exists for products containing plastic microbeads, the company’s values have always precluded stocking them. She notes that less harmful but equally effective alternatives to plastic microbeads, such as ground walnut shells or jojoba beads, are readily available.
Kebbell says individuals, businesses and other organisations all have a responsibility to be mindful of reducing their adverse impact on the environment.
“All of our products undergo a rigorous vetting process before being accepted for our stores and this often includes debate between managers on the sale of certain products, as sometimes tensions arise between our core values (organic food/environmental sustainability/fair trade and social responsibility) and can raise complex issues,” she says.
Retail NZ’s Greg Harford says the organisation isn’t surprised at the Government’s move towards banning products containing microbeads, and supports the proposed 12-18 month transition. He says this transition will allow retailers to sell any existing microbead-containing stock, and ensure new orders are for products which don’t contain microbeads.
“Our understanding is that these items are being phased out internationally, and there is a relatively small number of these products in stores in New Zealand.”
If the proposal goes ahead, Harford says, Retail NZ would advise retailers to sell through their existing stocks of microbead-containing products and take necessary steps with suppliers to ensure that new orders of personal care products do not contain microbeads and comply with the rules.
“We suggest taking these steps well ahead of any final Government deadline,” Harford says.