September 19, 2020

The environmental cost of adding microplastics to cosmetics, detergents and paints


The microplastics they can have many origins. One of them is everyday products to which they are intentionally added. Most of the time, they are added to improve the properties of the product and make its function more effective and faster. In short, to make our lives easier.

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However, in exchange for that effectiveness, we release large amounts of microplastics into the environment, with dire consequences for aquatic environments and the organisms that live in them.

Microplastics in personal hygiene products

Some of the best known cases are personal care products. Microplastics can be found in face and body scrubs, hand soap, and toothpastes. Most of the particles that are added to these products have sizes between 450-800 microns, and are composed of polyethylene.

A study commissioned by the European Commission estimated that in 2015, the European Union was able to use about 800 tons of microplastics in these types of products.

Many times we are not aware that we are using products with microplastics because they are not easy to identify in the ingredient list. However, in many cases it will be enough to find the word polyethylene (polyethylene) on that list to discard an item.

Detergents, cleaning products and paints

It is also common to add microplastics to the detergents we use to wash clothes and in common household cleaning products. Unfortunately, in these cases it will not be easy to find plastic among the list of ingredients, since detergent manufacturers are not required to include all components in the product packaging.

A study conducted by the Austrian environmental organization GLOBAL 2000 detected microplastics in 119 detergents out of 300 that were tested.

Microplastics are also used in paints (both for domestic and industrial use) and in abrasive products. As paints wear out, microplastics are released into the environment from various sources.

In the case of abrasive products, microplastics are typically mixed with other pressure cleaning agents, such as sand or a mineral called corundum. They are also used in the automotive and aeronautical industry.

What role do microplastics serve?

In general, we could say that plastic is a cheaper, more moldable and easier to use material than many others for certain applications. That is why it has been the first option considered so far by many companies to use them in their products. In addition, its use instead of other materials makes the final cost of the products considerably lower.

When we use an exfoliant for the body or a facial cleanser we want these substances to have an abrasive power on our skin, to be pleasant to the touch and to provide shine. Microplastics can serve those purposes well and are cheap materials. That is why they are added to replace some natural ingredients that could also work as exfoliating agents.

In detergents or household cleaners their function is to make clothes or surfaces very clean, effectively and quickly. They can also modify the density of liquid products, for example.

Something similar happens in the case of paintings. When we are going to paint a room at home, we like the paint to have a uniform color and a matte or glossy effect, or to be resistant to bumps and scratches. All this can be achieved thanks to the addition of microplastics.

Effects on the environment

Microplastics, and even the smallest particles created from their degradation, nanoplastics, can be easily ingested or mistaken for plankton by numerous fish, turtles, etc. in aquatic ecosystems. Thus they pass to the food chain.

Various of our studies most recent show that microplastics can trap other polluting substances present in water on their surface and, if ingested, transport these substances into organisms.

These are some of the reasons why, in September 2018, the European Parliament asked the European Commission to introduce a European-wide ban on microplastics intentionally added to these products.

A few months later, in January 2019, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) published a restriction proposal of the use of microplastics intentionally added to products with a 2020 deadline.

In the case of Spain, the Draft Law on waste and contaminated soils approved Recently by the Council of Ministers and associated with the framework of the Spanish Circular Economy Strategy, it provides for the prohibition of cosmetics and detergents that contain microplastics intentionally added as of July 3, 2021.

In this sense, the industry is already replacing microplastics with other compounds of natural origin such as seeds or mineral compounds or other non-plastic ingredients. In short, little by little the end of these particles intentionally added to products is approaching.


This article was originally published on The Conversation. You can read it here.

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