Wipe out wipes: The needless destruction of our oceans by the beauty industry

Pollution caused by ’fatbergs’ and microbeads is just one aspect of the needless and ugly destruction of our oceans by the beauty industry, writes Carolyn Moore.

YOU’RE meticulous about recycling, never without reusable shopping bags, and mindful of unnecessary packaging. But have you ever stopped to question the environmental impact of what’s inside that packaging?

Growing awareness about ‘microbeads’ — tiny plastic beads added to thousands of personal care products — is alerting consumers to a form of pollution which many of us were unwittingly contributing. Simply taking a shower, we could potentially be adding thousands of particles to the soup of plastic waste accumulating in our oceans.

Much of this waste is ‘microplastic’ — plastic particles under 5mm in size. Some microplastics occur when large plastic waste disintegrates, but microbeads are deliberately manufactured for use in scrubs and exfoliants. Less than 1mm in size, they are too small to be filtered by water treatment plants. Washed down our drains they end up in rivers and seas, where experts say they irreparably damage ecosystems and impact biodiversity — killing some forms of marine life and entering the food chain via other species.

The US initiated a ban on microbeads in 2015; Britain followed suit last year and now, having led the way with the plastic bag tax in 2002, Ireland is finally on course to ban the sale of products containing microbeads.

Last December Minister Simon Coveney, who at the time was responsible for housing, planning, community and local government, stated: “Ireland is beginning a process which will lead to a legislative ban on all products which contain microbeads in 2017”.

Then in February, he launched a public consultation process “in relation to a proposed legislative ban on certain products containing microbeads”.

“I regard microplastic pollution as one of most significant marine environmental challenges of the 21st century,” he said.

When the consultation phase closed the following month, more than 3,000 submissions were received. The Department is still studying the submissions along with technical and scientific research, legislation in the US and elsewhere. However, no timeline has been given.

The environmental issue is not just a concern of the government. A bill proposed by Green Party senator Grace O’Sullivan in September 2016 was rejected as “flawed” by the government, amid claims it could leave Ireland in breach of EU Treaty articles on the free movement of goods.

And last May, the Labour Party introduced its own bill on the issue.

“Our ambition is to make Ireland a leader in Europe on the banning of microplastics in cosmetics, detergents and toiletries,” says Sean Sherlock, Labour TD for Cork East, whose proposed legislation will go before the government in the coming months.

Sean Sherlock
Sean Sherlock

For scientists, a ban can’t come soon enough. At UCC’s Environmental Research Institute, Professor Marcel Jansen is heading up a research programme commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency, which he says is “very concerned about the presence of microplastics in the environment — both freshwater and marine.”

For Professor Jensen, the full extent of the damage inflicted on our waterways by these particles is only coming to light.Microbeads, however, are not the main source of microplastic pollution:

“Ultimately, a lot of plastics in the marine environment originate in our bathrooms,” he adds, while arguing it’s also the source we can most readily eliminate.

“In the past, these products used natural, biodegradable ingredients – oat husks, ground nuts shells. Microbeads may be a relatively small component of the microplastic problem, but it’s one that can easily be avoided,” he says.

As consumers, we can easily avoid scrubs containing microbeads, but plastic-based ingredients, or “polymers”, are becoming increasingly commonplace in leave-on formulations like moisturisers, makeup and sunscreens.

A report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) last May highlights 22 varieties of polymers, ranging from 1mm microbeads to ‘nanospheres’ one-tenth of a millimetre in size. Delegates were told they were showing up in water samples from some of the remotest places on earth.

Senator Grace O’Sullivan feels it’s incumbent on the cosmetics industry to take action. Likening the issue to the successful campaign to remove CFCs from deodorants and sprays, she says: “With social media, we’re living in an increasingly consumer–led society.

“This campaign, has been consumer-led internationally, and companies who fail to take action will suffer reputational damage in the long run.”

But attempts at self-regulation by the cosmetics industry have been met with mixed responses from campaigners. A report by Greenpeace found glaring ‘loopholes’ in manufacturer’s own attempts to phase out microbeads, including: limiting their efforts to just cleansing products, focusing on one type of plastic, or committing to using only biodegradable microbeads.

It’s a compromise Jacqueline McGlade, chief scientist at the UNEP, dismisses as a “false solution”.

“Biodegradable plastics break down at temperatures of 50 degrees plus,” she told UN delegates. “That’s not the ocean.”

MPs on the British environmental audit committee concluded that only a national ban would address the issue with the “consistency, universality and confidence” consumers have been calling for, and for this reason, many experts now want to see an EU-wide ban.

And what of the other environmental hazards hiding on our bathroom shelves?

Recent revelations that face wipes are composed mainly of polyester make them another cause for concern – one that has yet to be addressed by legislation. Even disposed of correctly, wipes will languish in landfills for centuries to come, but the misconception that household, baby and face wipes are flushable is causing them to block up sewers before eventually washing up on beaches, congealed with fat and human waste.

In 2015, a 40-metre long mass of wipes and fat — a so-called ‘fatberg’ — destroyed a Victorian sewer in Chelsea, costing Thames Water £400,000. The same year a report by the British Marine Conservation Society found wipes were the fastest growing pollutants on British beaches.

“Wipes are a huge issue on our radar at the Green Party,” confirms Grace O’Sullivan. “Years ago I worked with Oceana.org, studying the loggerhead sea turtle. They were eating wipes thinking they were jellyfish.

“Different species think plastics are some form of marine life; they ingest it, and they’re gone – asphyxiated. We will have more problems with that.”

With microbeads banned, beauty giants will have to find natural alternatives; likewise, consumer pressure could force the manufacturers of wipes to opt for biodegradable materials.

Eco brand Yes To make 100% compostable cellulose wipes. “While not tested to be flushable,” they say, “our wipes don’t have to sit in a landfill. They can be recycled or disposed of with your food waste.” Given the rapid growth in the wipes market, legislating for their composition and increasing consumer awareness on their correct disposal could be essential steps towards making this modern day convenience less of an eco-hazard.

Marketing researchers Euromonitor International claim sales of wipes almost doubled between 2003 and 2013, from 93 billion to 170 billion units — and they predict dramatic increases by 2018 as emerging markets embrace the convenience they offer.

Additionally, the trend toward skincare wipes, including anti-ageing and serum delivery, mean skin care regimens could soon include multiple wipes.

If all of this has you reaching for the cotton wool, consider that the non-organic cotton industry is a noted source of global pollution that uses a quarter of the world’s insecticides and 10% of its pesticides; and before you fall back on a foaming cleanser, check to see if it contains sulfates — yet another damaging ingredient we’re washing into our waterways.

“For limited benefit, we’re producing so many chemicals which end up in the environment,” says Marcel Jansen. “They’re all worrying in terms of their impact.”

And for conscious consumers, it’s worrying to see just how ugly the beauty industry can be.

Reduce your beauty footprint now with these simple steps.

1. Manage your microplastics

Check for ingredients like polyethylene and polypropylene, or scan barcodes with the ‘Beat the Microbead’ app to avoid products containing these hazardous particles. Ripe by Roz’s Coffee Bean Scrub is a natural exfoliator for face and body, €15, ripebyroz.ie.

2. Wave bye bye to wipes

Experts agree they’re bad for your skin, and non-biodegradable wipes are also bad for the environment. Consider using a natural cleanser — like Nuxe Melting Cleansing Gel with rose petals, €14.25, Sam McCauley — with reusable facecloths instead.

3. Clean without chemicals

More suds does not mean better cleansing, so look for sulfate-free shampoos and shower gels, and avoid parabens, a common preservative. Eco-brand Yes To is free from parabens, and their Coconut Ultra Moisture Shampoo (€7.99, Boots) is sulfate-free.

4. Switch your sunscreen

Sunscreens contain hormone-disrupting chemicals that get absorbed by skin include coral-bleaching oxybenzane. Titanium or zinc-based mineral sunscreens — like Jason Mineral Natural Sun Cream, €16.75, nourish.ie — sit on skin to form a physical UV barrier.

5. Protect without petroleum

Many lip balms are petroleum-based, a by-product of the oil industry. Shea butter, cocoa butter, beeswax, and multi-purpose coconut oil balms are better for the environment. Coconut Kisses by Bia Beauty is in a handy, handbag-sized tin. €4.95, biabeauty.com.

6. Forgo the shaving foam

Cans of foam contain propane, butane, isobutene, and petroleum-derived ingredients. Use natural shaving oils or creams instead. Kiehl’s Smooth Glider shaving cream, €15, Debenhams contains Kukui Nut and Eucalyptus oils to soften and smooth.

7. Stick to soap

An unnecessary advance in personal hygiene, anti-bacterial handwashes wash the algae-killing, hormone-disrupting chemical triclosan into our waterways. Tea-tree oil is naturally antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral, and used in Dr. Organic’s Tea Tree Handwash, €7.59, Holland & Barrett.

8. Go strictly sustainable

Palm oil is in half the products we buy, and global demand is leading to deforestation and animal extinction. Look for products that use sustainable palm oil, or avoid it entirely — ethical brand Lush reformulated their product range to be palm oil-free.


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