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Scrubbing our way to disaster

The Statesman
By Professor  

There has been an astonishing increase in the worldwide use of plastic. Because of poor waste management practices, the environmental burden from the use of plastic has continued to grow. Have you realised what are contained in the personal care products you use daily, and how they impact the environment at large?

There is more to plastic than meets the eye.The pollution of oceans and marine life due to plastic is a global environmental concern and it needs urgent attention. Microbeads are synthetic plastic polymers that can be generally found in facial scrubs, soaps, some toothpastes and other household items. The microbeads are usually between 0.0005 to 1.2 mm wide.

They are not only hazardous to marine species in oceans but they also cause water pollution. These tiny beads of plastic are of great concern: they tend to enter oceans, seas and other water bodies in huge quantities. The difficult part is that they are impossible to remove.

Many of the ingredients present in personal care products contain non degradable polymers. These particles might take hundreds of years to completely decompose. They not only pollute the environment but they also make it difficult for marine animals to survive, feed and regenerate. The plastic composition of these beads never dissolve and create enormous debris. Due to the tiny size of microbead particles, they are not susceptible to treatment processes.

The microbeads are mainly discharged via wastewater. In absence of water treatment facilities, they are directly released to surface water. But the fact that they are small contributes to their presence in fish and inland and coastal habitats. Their presence in fish highlights their presence in the food chain which again harms marine animals. Preventive measures taken at the source will eventually lead to decreasing the burden in the end.

The United Nations Environment Project (UNEP) observed that one of the major solutions to counter the issue of microbeads should be aimed at the source. The United Nations has consistently urged to “Turn the tide against Plastic”. The U.N. report “Plastic in cosmetic” states that plastic ingredients in personal care products are poured down the drain, cannot be collected for recycling, and do not decompose in wastewater treatment facilities.

The amount of plastic ingested by fish becomes a part of the food chain. The people consuming fish will also be consuming microbeads. Nations around the world are taking cognizance of the fact that microbeads are a major threat to the environment. There has been a positive effect with nations taking steps to curb the use of microbeads in major household products around the world.

The US has promulgated the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 which will ensure that microbeads are phased out by the end of 2017 in cosmetic goods. Sweden notified the World Trade Organisation that it will prohibit the sale of plastic particles used for exfoliating or other cleaning purposes. The Government of Canada has decided to take strict action against microbeads and will be following a timeline similar to the United States in banning microbeads.

The legislations should focus on the microbeads that escape wastewater treatment techniques. These legislations will play a leading role in phasing out the use of microbeads in personal care products. The plastic particles that consist of only naturally occurring polymers and that have not been chemically modified are an exception. It is possible to replace these plastic beads with natural alternatives. These alternatives must biodegrade quickly and not harm marine life.

There should be a shift towards using cleaner techniques of production and ensuring that environmental considerations drive production decisions. This is the perfect time for the nations of the world to take inspiration from those countries that have already taken steps to ban microbeads.

Microbeads have a severe impact on human health, marine biology and the food chain. There should ideally be a complete ban on synthetic plastic microbeads from all cosmetics and all other personal care products. This will not only protect marine biology but will ensure that the water bodies are not stuffed with plastic.

It is of utmost importance for all the stakeholders involved to ensure a response focusing on waste prevention, environmental impact and inhibiting pollution at the source. The aim is to ensure that the least amount of plastic is washed down the drain on a regular basis.

(The writers are, respectively, a recent graduate and a professor of law at the Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat.)