Mermaid tears make the sea cry

© M.Barbieux/Tara Expéditions

Invisible to the naked eye, plastic microbeads have quietly invaded our everyday products. These very fine spherical particles are now present in hundreds or even thousands of cosmetics: scrubs, creams and health creams, hydro-alcoholic cleansers, toothpaste and nail polish. 

While some packaging lists their presence, “contains microbeads,” others don’t mention them, or cover their tracks. Appearing in the list of components are obscure names like “polyethylene” or “polypropylene.” 

Forget crushed apricot pits to remove dead skin, forgotten are the beauty recipes of our grandmothers, plastic microbeads in cosmetics glide onto the skin and bring a soft touch to our creams. That’s why there’s industrial use and abuse. Regardless if they’re less than 1 mm or slightly larger (as in exfoliating products), their fate is the same. They are not biodegradable and are proving far too small to be filtered out by water treatment plants. They travel through our pipes via the shower drain, flow through sewers and rivers, before ending their run in the seas and oceans. There they will be carried by the currents, possibly for several centuries, or enter the underwater food chain and be swallowed by fish. Called ”mermaid tears” in English, they are poisoning aquatic ecosystems.

Once again the cumulative effect of individual actions is leading to a global problem. Harmless gestures of beauty care and hygiene are not harmless for the environment, and consumers are not warned. And if they were, they would probably choose not to use a particular product, and take an easy step to protecting the environment.

In the United States, the Great Lakes region is particularly affected by this source of pollution. So much so that the state of Illinois passed a law in June to ban the use of plastic microbeads in industry. Other states such as New York, California and Ohio are trying to pass similar laws.

Scientists have become interested in recent years and some estimates have been published. Dr. Leslie of the Free University of Amsterdam, estimates that exfoliant scrub (manufactured by a renown brand) is composed of 10.6% microplastics. The American NGO 5Gyres signaled another similar product, which contains 360,000 micro-beads. In Europe, the researchers Liebezeit and Dubaish from the German Oldenburg University, believe that cosmetics are the main source of microplastic pollution in the Wadden Sea.

The problematic of microbeads is integrated into the study of microplastics being conducted aboard Tara. But the subject is not new: in 1972, E.J. Carpenter and K.L. Smith were the first researchers to sound the alarm about the presence of small plastic particles on the surface of the Atlantic. Shortly after publication, they reported ingestion of polyethylene by fish. 42 years have passed since these early observations, and the situation is only getting worse. But there is still time to reverse the trend and stop discharging wastes into the sea, if only the right decisions are made.

Noëlie Pansiot

For those who wish to give up their industrial product, here’s a simple recipe for a gentle exfoliation.

Ingredients:

- A tablespoon of fine powdered sugar
- A tablespoon of vegetable oil (olive, argan or hazelnut)
- Add 2 drops of essential grapefruit oil (optional)

Mix together in a bowl, apply in small circular movements.

Related articles:

Ocean and plastic.

The scientific objectives of the Tara Mediterranean expedition: measuring the impact of micro plastics on the oceans.

Environmental issues of marine pollution.