/ 8 February 2019

Microplastic pollution on tap in SA

(John McCann/M&G)
(John McCann/M&G)

If you have been paying even the slightest attention to environmental issues, you will know that microplastics — also called nanoplastics which includes microbeads — are polluting both fresh and seawater and finding their way into our food chain.

But you possibly don’t know that some of the biggest cosmetic brands contain microbeads. These include Johnson & Johnson’s Clean & Clear Advantage and Soothe Daily Scrub, which contains polyethylene; Pond’s Flawless Radiance, which includes polyquaternium-7; and there is nylon-12 in Revlon’s Colorstay makeup, L’Oréal’s Infallible Matte Foundation and Maybelline’s Fit Me! Matte+Poreless Foundation.

Microplastics are defined as being less than five millimeters in diameter and microbeads are put into products such as exfoliants, toothpaste, shampoo, body wash, moisturisers, makeup and sunscreens.

Hardly visible to the naked eye, they flow from the bathroom drain into the sewers and then into rivers and ultimately the sea.

Identifying the presence of microbeads can be complex, says the director of the environmental consultancy the Green House, Pippa Notten. “There are so many different types of polymers that make up plastics that it is extremely easy to hide these microbeads in products because the names are so obscure. This is one of the criticisms.”

“It is difficult for the consumer,” says Shannon Hampton, the project co-ordinator of the International Ocean Institute African region. “There isn’t a comprehensive list of products for South Africa which have microplastics in them.

“We don’t have the manpower to make [a list] and sometimes it’s difficult to get information on ingredients,” Hampton says.

“For instance, a lot of the emphasis is on personal-care products, toothpaste, body scrub and face wash, but there are plastics in makeup and household cleaning products too, and those don’t list ingredients,” she says.

The microbeads contained in the products found by the Mail & Guardian were listed on the label but none of the products used the words microbeads or microplastics.

There are at least 10 different plastics — polypropylene, polyethylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polystyrene, polymethyl methacrylate, nylon, polyacrylate, polyacrylonitrile, polyethyl acrylate and polyethyl methacrylate — in cosmetic and other household products.

“Plastic is cheap. It is versatile. It is easy to control and manipulate, so you can use it to make longer eyelashes, add shine to body lotion, glisten to shampoo; all sorts of things,” Hampton says.

The M&G approached the five mentioned companies for comment but only Johnson & Johnson’s Sheree van der Poll replied, saying: “In 2018, we joined the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, an ambitious effort to create a world in which plastic never becomes waste. We have promised that, by 2025, we will use more recycled materials in packaging, reduce reliance on the single-use model and ensure 100% of our plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable.”

Microbeads are globally in the spotlight and the Guardian revealed in a recent set of articles the threats they pose, and reported that microplastics are being found in human waste. Polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate were the most common particles.

Since January 9 this year, the use of microbeads has been banned in the United Kingdom, the newspaper reported.

A study released last year by the Water Research Commission (WRC), done by North-West University researchers, found that our fresh water contains microplastics. The Crocodile River, which feeds the Hartbeespoort Dam before the water flows into the Limpopo, had the highest total particle, fragment and fibre counts, although the Vaal Dam water contained larger particles.

The study was done on rivers in North West, Gauteng and the Free State, and included drinking and groundwater sources.

Tap water in Johannesburg and Tshwane was found to contain the particles.

“Generally, much lower [levels of] particles were observed in treated water compared to the raw water. Tap water samples collected from the Tshwane region seemed to have fewer fragments compared with Johannesburg,” according to the study.

Following the release of the report, the department of environmental affairs said it would set up a task team of officials from the departments of trade and industry, health, and science and technology to find ways to reduce the use of these particulates.

The South African Health Products Regulatory Authority is also involved in eliminating the use of microbeads in cosmetics. It says regulations related to the labelling, advertising and composition of cosmetics made in terms of the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act have been published for comment.

“The authority is currently in the process of reviewing comments submitted by various stakeholders and plans to publish the finalised regulations in 2019,” it says in an email response.

Currently there is nothing to prevent these plastics from being added to products, but things started to change worldwide in 2012 when a high concentration of particles was found in the Great Lakes of North America and environmental groups called for them to be banned. The intention is to prevent them from entering the water supply because they are too small to be removed from polluted water.

The department of environment’s Ernest Mulibana says: “The department supports the phasing out of microbeads in cosmetics. Other interventions that the department supports include recycling of plastic products, improved ecodesign of plastic products [and the] use of alternative materials to substitute problematic single-use plastic products.”

Deborah Robertson-Andersson, an integrated aquaculturist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, says: “Plastics are gentler and cheaper when compared to the previous ingredients used, like apricot husks, silica sand, pumice, etcetera. They are generally not harmful in the product themselves but are harmful when they interact in the environment.”

Notten says: “The country has a litter and a waste management problem, and most of our plastics [pollution] come from breaking down plastics …

“Microbeads are good for consumers to be able to do something about pollution and bring companies to book, because there are perfectly natural ingredients you can put in there, so it’s basically unnecessary.

“Companies can get away with using these ingredients because, when they are in the ocean or tap water, it’s not easy to identify the source,” she says.

Tshegofatso Mathe is an Adamela Trust business journalist at the Mail & Guardian