Environmental Pollution of Cosmetic (and other) Plastics in Waterways

Date: 18th March 2016

Prepared by Ric Williams - ASCC Technical Committee

Executive Summary and Position

Many countries around the world are not only considering the issue of plastic debris in the waterways but are now actively moving towards a ban on the use of plastic microbeads for use in cosmetic products. USA and Europe have been the first to ban the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetic products such as facial scrubs.

From the studies referenced in this paper, it appears that plastic microbeads, used in cosmetics, are not the total cause of the pollution problem found. In fact, plastic microbeads in cosmetics could be considered a minor contaminant compared to other forms waste. However, the Australian cosmetics industry and government have acted on consumer concerns regarding the use of plastic microbeads.

The ASCC believes that the cosmetic industry can (and is) working to replace plastic microbeads in cosmetic products and encourages manufacturers and brand owners to do so.

However, we believe that other industries must also do their part. It should not be left to the cosmetic industry alone to bear the adverse publicity currently surrounding this issue.

Current Situation

It is the very properties that make plastics so useful, their stability and resistance to degradation, that causes them to be so problematic after they have served their purpose.

Plastic debris originates from a wide and diverse range of sources [1]. Some common types of plastic are referred to in Appendix 1.

Bio-based and truly biodegradable plastics break down in a compost pile or landfill, but are generally not designed to degrade as quickly in the ocean [1].  

The effect of coastal littering and dumping is compounded from sources such as rivers and storm drains discharging litter from inland urban areas. Estimates suggest that much of what is found at sea originates on the land. Because of frequent inappropriate waste management practices, or irresponsible human behavior, large masses of plastic items have been released into the environment, and thereby have entered the world's rivers, lakes, seas and oceans. Moreover, this process continues, and in some places is even increasing [1] [2] [4] [5].

Plastics accumulate in coastal areas, at the ocean surface and on the seabed. Because 70% of all plastics are known to eventually sink, it is suspected that ever increasing amounts of plastic items are accumulating in seabed sediments. Plastics persist in the environment and are not readily degraded, or processed, by natural biological mechanisms, although, under the influence of solar UV radiation and mechanical action, plastics do degrade and fragment into small particles, termed microplastics (tiny pieces the size of grains of sand). Our oceans eventually serve as a sink for these small plastic particles and in one estimate, it is thought that 200,000 microplastics per km2 of the ocean's surface commonly exist [3] [5].

However, an accurate estimate does not yet exist for how much debris is composed of plastic materials [2].

The world-wide move against the use of plastic microbeads began in 2012, with Unilever becoming the first major multinational to commit to eliminating plastic microbead use. Since then, Beiersdorf, Colgate-Palmolive, and L’Oréal have agreed to do the same.

In December 2015, US President Barack Obama signed a Bill, known as the Microbead-Free Waters Act, which is designed to eliminate the use of plastic micro-beads, in the USA. This bill amends the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to ban rinse-off cosmetics that contain intentionally-added plastic microbeads beginning on January 1, 2018, and to ban manufacturing of these cosmetics beginning on July 1, 2017. These bans are delayed by one year for cosmetics that are over-the-counter drugs.
This will have the flow-on effect of making the industrial supply of plastic micro-beads more difficult, throughout the world, thereby hastening the changes in all countries, not just those that have legislated against them.

Plastic Micro-beads in Australia

With respect to the use of plastic micro-beads in cosmetics, a recent article8, regarding the impending voluntary elimination of cosmetic plastic micro-beads in Australia, was published. It began with “Australia is gearing up to join other countries across the world in phasing out microbeads from its personal care and beauty products”. It included a statement by Australia’s Minister for the Environment; The Hon. Greg Hunt. He recently said “I have to confess it’s one of those issues which have emerged later than it should have.” The minister confirmed that although this request is voluntary, the Government is eager to have the cosmetic industry’s full co-operation with a full national phase out. Hunt went on to say “We want to work with industry to do this. Already Coles and Woolworths have responded and committed to banning microbeads from their shelves by the end of 2017, but we want to see a full national phase out.”

Another recent publication applicable to Australia is the report by the NSW Parliamentary Research Service “Pollution in Sydney Harbour” 9.
Note; Sydney Water treat the wastewater before it's re-used or discharged to rivers or oceans, following strict licence conditions issued by the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA). They also monitor the effect of discharges on water quality and aquatic life.

While this report does name plastic micro-beads used in cosmetics, shampoos and facial-cleansers, as “primary micro-plastics”, it goes on to say that the other major “primary plastics” are “air-blasting media (micro-plastic scrubbers which are blasted at machinery, engines and boat hulls to remove rust)”.
The report also mentions “secondary micro-plastics” that generally result from the breakdown of larger plastic items or the smaller debris (78% polyester, 9% polyamide, 7% polypropylene and 5% acrylic) that resemble textiles and could be attributed to waste from washing machines.
It is interesting that this data is from water samples in Sydney Harbour, but from the NSW Government’s own data10, Sydney Water has only one outfall that may impact on the Parramatta River and hence Sydney Harbour. This is Eastern Creek to South Creek (Riverstone) and accounts for 0.17% of the total. Overall 96.3% is discharged in ocean outfalls.

Given that the vast majority of waste from homes (where cosmetics are used), will result in ocean outfalls, then the ASCC questions if plastic microbeads, from cosmetics, are more than a very minor cause of the pollution problem found in Sydney Harbour.

A very interesting and informative (well balanced and factual) source of information was from the Australian television documentary show Catalyst (ABC Channel 2)11.

This show started an investigation of the cause and effects of micro-plastic pollution and came up with some interesting findings, supported by well-credentialed eco-scientists from around the world.

A summary of relevant information, from this show, is as follows;

Research by three eminent eco-scientists found that there are “different kinds of micro-plastics”. This is opposed to cosmetics where generally one type of microplastic - small spherical polyethylene beads are used. It was revealed that the majority of micro-plastic found were “fibres”.

The assertion was made (Ecologist - Dr Mark Browne) that “these chemicals (ie. Flame retardants, PCBs, etc. absorbed by the plastics) are in our seafood”, and that fibres have a large surface area to weight ratio hence can absorb a large amount of “chemicals”. He quoted such results from the Great Lakes (USA), however failed to indicate that sewerage flows in the Great Lakes as opposed to predominantly ocean outfalls in Australia.

The show then interviewed Dr Chelsea Rochman, who confirmed that Flame retardants (and similar chemicals) can cause liver damage and endocrine disruption. Dr Rochman also revealed that Triclosan (added to plastics to prevent microbial contamination) has been found to kill beach worms.

The show next interviewed Prof. Emma Johnston about her findings in Sydney Harbour. She concluded that the major problem is that plastic micro-particles are “typically not coming from shave gels and face scrubs”. Her findings were that “most of the micro-plastics are in the form of fibres”.

The emphasis then changed to other countries (Dr Chelsea Rochman) where similar results, on the sources of micro-plastics, were found in other developed countries.
As examples results from Indonesia (mostly under-developed) were that the majority of micro-plastics found were generally “larger broken down pieces”, presumably from irresponsible disposal; whereas in the USA the majority of micro-plastics were also found to be micro-fibres. The implication was that Indonesia did not have as much synthetic fibre clothing and/or did not use as many automatic washing machines, hence did not see the extent of the problem found in the USA.

Dr Mark Browne followed the trail further and determined that the micro-fibres were of a Nylon and Polyester composition, which equates to clothing being the source. Note; Cosmetics generally have only one type of microplastic, ie. where small spherical polyethylene beads are used. He stated that “fibres are the dominant micro-plastics found”. Dr Mark Browne conducted some trials (using a washing machine and a fleecy garment) where he found that there could be as much as 2000 plastic micro-fibers per wash. He also found that other polyester or nylon garments are not much better. His conclusion was that “plastic” garments (Nylon and Polyester) are a “lot more diabolical than plastic microbeads”. He also stated that garment or washing machine manufacturers had a general disinterest in the findings.

A synopsis of the information provided in the show (Catalyst) indicates that cosmetics appear to be a minor contaminant and other sources (Nylon or Polyester garments, Industrial uses such as air-blasting media and breakdown from irresponsible disposal) are much more of a problem.

It is also the ASCC position that plastic microbeads from cosmetic products, where they are used as exfoliants, while contributing to the problem, and are the main focus of pending and existing legislation around the world, are a minor cause of what we see as marine pollution in many areas of the world.

Despite this, the ASCC believes that the cosmetic industry should be (and is) working to replace non-biodegradable plastic microbeads in cosmetic products, for reasons outlined above, and will do so by the end of 2017, or earlier. The ASCC also encourages other manufacturers and brand owners to immediately begin the conversion to bio-degradable non-plastic systems.

The ASCC would hope that all local, state and federal governments, in Australia, to adopt a Comprehensive Approach to pollution from plastics and not, immediately, single out one industry that might prove to be a minor player.

Comprehensive Approach Required

Solutions to the plastic debris problem can only be achieved through a combination of actions, including:

  • Legislation against marine pollution by plastics should be enforced – this includes pollution in suburban areas where the waste will flow to waterways,
  • Alternatives (biodegradable materials) to current plastic products should be used where possible,
  • Recycling should be accentuated,
  • Reuse items whenever possible. Choose reusable items over disposable ones, and
  • Clean-up of debris should proceed.

1. Legislation against marine pollution by plastics should be enforced
Current attempts are to address the problem of marine debris and range from international legislation to prevent shipping from dumping plastic at sea and campaigns to prevent losses due to poor industrial practice to beach and seabed clean-up operations and public awareness campaigns, but these do not seem to be effective. Heavier fines and more policing could be part of a more effective approach.

As an example, an interesting suggestion by Dr Mark Browne was that washing machines (presumably household and industrial) should be fitted with a micro-filter to remove these particles before they are sent to sewer systems.

2. Alternatives (biodegradable materials) to current plastic products should be used where possible.

Because of their low cost, stability and versatility plastics (since the 1960’s) have been the packaging of choice for many product ranges (including cosmetics).

Glass is often a less suitable option due to its weight, fragility and danger when broken.

There are a range of food products packaged into cardboard with wax linings and this is a concept that could be expanded further, particularly in outer packaging of cosmetics so as to reduce the amount of plastics produced. The problem with this form is the low rigidity and low tensile strength, hence is not applicable to many cosmetic uses.

Ideally, the cosmetics industry needs rigid forms, in typical forms, stable in use, moldable into various shapes, at low cost and, ultimately, biodegradable in an acceptable period.

With respect to the issue at hand (plastic beads used as skin exfoliators); we do have many options currently and it would not be too difficult to convert to these in a short period of time. These range from;

  • Ground plant material; Bamboo and Luffa are ideal candidates, but we would not recommend ground Walnut/Almond shells that tend to have sharp edges and which may scratch sensitive skin.
  • Preformed plant material such as Jojoba or Cellulose particles.
  • Ground minerals such as Pumice (unfortunately a dark grey colour and may have sharp edges); Clays (can be found in many forms and colours); Zeolite (can also act as a heavy metal absorbant); Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide; or Insoluble Salts (eg DiCalcium Phosphate).

3. Recycling should be accentuated

While recycling is promoted in household/community environments (eg recycling bins and depots) little, apart from cardboard, is promoted in the chemical industry. Plastic waste is generally sent out with general waste and mostly sent to landfill, but a small portion may find its way into waterways. It would be advantageous for local and national Government to consider extending schemes involving recycling of waste plastics.

We do have 10c deposits on recyclable drink containers (only in some states in Australia though) and it is possible to not only extend this scheme to all states but to include other forms of plastic waste as well, including cosmetic containers. Note; this recycle deposit is passed onto consumers as an increased price.

4. Reuse items whenever possible. Choose reusable items over disposable ones

Should we recycle cosmetic containers with fresh product? A scenario which is feasible but must be carefully controlled. The first problem with doing this is from microbial contamination of the product, where the container must be properly cleaned and preferable sterilized before refilling. This brings us to the second problem of where do you get the container refilled.

You can promote a case where you get a fresh container (at a cost less the packaging) when you return the used container, however this will definitely incur an extra cost as the manufacturer has to clean and sterilize the used containers before they can be reused and this will be passed onto the customer. Small manufacturers will have some difficulty with this as well, due to their size, and if the cleaning/sterilizing is done outside it will incur a cost that must be passed on.

Unfortunately, this type of reuse does not currently exist in the cosmetic industry, mainly for the reasons of microbial contamination (as mentioned).

5. Clean-up of debris should proceed.

By promoting the above items above the cosmetic industry will do all it can to minimize the problem, and Clean-up of existing pollution is a matter for Governments to put such a plan into effect.

Appendix 1.

Acronym           Full name                                                              Common Examples

PET (PETE)         Polyethylene terephthalate                                  clear drink bottles

PES                    Polyester                                                               polyester clothing

PE                      Polyethylene                                                         plastic bags

LDPE                  Low-density polyethylene                                    plastic tubes

HDPE                 High-density polyethylene                                    opaque bottles

PVC                    Polyvinyl chloride                                                  plumbing pipes

PP                      Polypropylene                                                       drinking straws

PA                      Polyamide (aka nylon)                                          toothbrushes, fishing line

PS                      Polystyrene                                                           take-out food containers

Appendix 2.

Appendix 3 - Consultants quoted in the ABC Television show “Catalyst”.

  • Dr Mark Anthony Browne
  • NCEAS Post-doctoral Fellow
  • National Center for Ecological Analysis & Synthesis, University of California Santa Barbara, 735 State Street, Suite 300, Santa Barbara, CA 93101-3351, USA
  • Dr Chelsea Rochman
  • David H. Smith Conservation Research
  • Postdoctoral Fellow
  • University of Toronto
  • University of California, Davis, CA, USA
  • Prof. Emma Johnston
    Head of the Applied Marine and Estuarine Ecology Lab (AMEE)
  • School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences
  •  University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

References and further reading

1.  What We Know About: Plastic Marine Debris
NOAA Marine Debris Program | Office of Response and Restoration | NOAA's Ocean Service | NOAA | US Department of Commerce| USA


2.  Marine Debris Program
Office of Response and Restoration | NOAA's Ocean Service | NOAA | US Department of Commerce| USA

3.  Microplastic Marine Debris
NOAA Marine Debris Program | Office of Response and Restoration | NOAA's Ocean Service | NOAA | US Department of Commerce| USA

4.  Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans
Greenpeace publication

5.  ​Plastics in the marine environment: the dark side of a modern gift.
Hammer J1, Kraak MH, Parsons JR.  Rev Environ Contam Toxicol. 2012;220:1-44. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4614-3414-6_1.

6.  ​Proceedings of the Second Research Workshop on Microplastic Marine Debris
NOAA Marine Debris Program National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration U.S. Department of Commerce, Technical Memorandum NOS-OR&R-39 February 2012

7.  ​Beat the Microbead
International Campaign Against Microbeads in Cosmetics http://www.beatthemicrobead.org/en/

8.  ​Microbeads to be ditched in Australia as early as 2017
by Lucy Whitehouse, 11-Feb-2016, Cosmetics design-asia.com

9.  ​Pollution in Sydney Harbour: sewage, toxic chemicals and microplastics
NSW Parliamentary Research Service Briefing Paper No 03/2015by Daniel Montoya

10.  ​Wastewater Treatment Plants
Sydney Waterhttps://www.sydneywater.com.au/SW/water-the-environment/how-we-manage-sydney-s-water/wastewater-network/wastewater-treatment-plants/index.htm

11.  Catalyst – Episode 7
Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC Television Channel 2) Broadcast 8:00 pm; Tuesday March 15, 2016

12.  Environmental expert slams war on personal care microbeads
By Simon Pitman+, 26-Apr-2016Further research carried out at the University of Michigan into the possible pollution effects of microbeads in waters in the Great Lakes have demonstrated a vastly different outcome. http://www.cosmeticsdesign.com/Formulation-Science/Environmental-expert-slams-war-on-personal-care-microbeads

13.  Why your laundry is littering the ocean with plastic?
Paula Goodyer
October 30, 2017 - The Sydney Morning Herald

14.  IMAS Researchers Find Growing Microplastic Pollution in Marine Beds
Published on 14 July 2017. Publication : SpecialChem Newsletter