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Companies might find microplastics cheap, but the environment is paying the price 

Janet Nguyen Apr 29, 2022
Kostikova/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Companies might find microplastics cheap, but the environment is paying the price 

Janet Nguyen Apr 29, 2022
Kostikova/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Microplastics can be found nearly everywhere, including the ocean and the air we breathe. And, according to a recent research paper published in Environment International, microplastics have now also been detected in human blood for the first time. 

Microplastics are particles smaller than 5 millimeters across, as defined by marine ecologist Richard Thompson. While microplastics are found in countless products, one area where countries have already pushed for legislation include the beauty and personal care product industry.  

For these companies, there’s a financial incentive to continue using microplastics. For example, a proposal from the European Chemicals Agency on banning microplastics found that this would cost the cosmetics industry in the European Union up to 8 billion euros annually, reported the Business of Fashion, an online media company, back in 2019. That’s equivalent to about $8.5 billion. In 2021, the global market for this industry was valued at $482.8 billion. 

In the U.S., Congress has taken some action on microplastics. It passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 which banned companies from manufacturing, packaging and distributing rinse-off cosmetics that contain microbeads, which are used as a scrubbing tool. These products include toothpastes, acne scrubs and anti-dandruff shampoos.

However, this law doesn’t address other types of microplastics, nor does it address all microbeads, which can still be used in deodorants, lotion and makeup. “There are definitely loopholes in the law,” said Sherri A. Mason, director of sustainability at Penn State Behrend. “It was a great first step. It was never intended to be the last one.” 

Environmentalist organizations are pushing for corporations and lawmakers to take sweeping action on the issue. For example, Beat the Microbead, an international campaign from the Amsterdam-based Plastic Soup Foundation, is putting pressure on major corporations and entire countries to ban the use of these materials in cosmetics. 

The management of microplastics is a growing field, and the scientific literature on the topic has exploded in the past five years, according to Vincent Breslin, a professor of environment, geography and marine sciences at Southern Connecticut University. 

“Scientists and ecologists are really taking a closer look at how we interact with plastics, and the consequences [that] really poorly managing plastic waste has had on our environment over the years,” Breslin said. 

In the study published in Environmental International, researchers from Macquarie University in Australia studied microplastics in Australian homes and found that some of the microplastics they measured were composed of “potentially carcinogenic and/or mutagenic compounds,” although “the actual risk to human health is unclear.” Studies on microplastics have mainly focused on their effects on marine life.

There are “primary” microplastics designed for use in products such as cosmetics and personal care products, which include microbeads, and “secondary” microplastics that break down from larger plastics. Experts also say that even clothing can shed microfibers, another form of microplastic pollution.

Amy Ziff, the founder of Made Safe, a nonprofit that certifies products without known toxic chemicals, said we need to be asking how these microplastics are getting into our bodies. 

“These plastics are everywhere. We’re inhaling them. We’re breathing them in whether we can see them or not. That’s how prevalent this is,” Ziff said. “And I don’t say that to scare people. I say that to motivate people.”

Beat the Microbead, which initially tracked a handful of ingredients known to be used in microbeads, has since expanded its scope to raise awareness of the hundreds of other microplastics used in products, which the campaign says encompasses solid, liquid, soluble and “biodegradable” materials. 

The cosmetics industry will use microplastic ingredients for film formation or as thickening agents, among other purposes, because of how cheap they are, according to Beat the Microbead. 

Some states are taking the initiative to pass more expansive legislation addressing the issue of microplastics. Tasha Stoiber, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group, noted that California introduced a bill this year that would ban the sale or distribution of products like cosmetics, waxes and polishes that have “intentionally added microplastics,” along with microbeads in detergents. 

Outside of the U.S., the European Commission is aiming to ban microplastics from cosmetics and detergents, among other products, although it has yet to become law. 

Mason said the beauty and personal care industry has a long way to go when it comes to making products sustainable and rethinking their packaging. 

However, Carla Burns, senior director of cosmetic science at the Environmental Working Group, noted that the clean beauty industry has gained traction over the past decade. 

“I think there’s a movement away from the use of plastics, being very conscious of water use — whether that be in the formulations or in the product packaging — [and] being more thoughtful about recycling and reusability of product packaging and containers,” Burns said. 

Burns added that there’s also been shifts in technology and formulations, with some companies pursuing plant-based exfoliants. The market research firm Statista projects the clean beauty market will double from $11 billion in 2016 to $22 billion by 2024. 

When it comes to environmentally conscious choices, EWG’s Tasha Stoiber said it can’t simply be left up to the consumer. “There has to be a top-down solution,” she added.

Mason echoed that sentiment, saying, “If you are not of the financial means to be able to make changes, don’t beat yourself up.” 

But Mason pointed to apps consumers can use to find out what’s in their products. The Beat the Microbead campaign has developed an app that allows you to scan products for microplastics. An app from the Environmental Working Group enables you to scan products and review their ratings. 

“I would recommend consumers to vote with their dollar, and to support companies that are not intentionally adding microplastics to their products,” Burns said.

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