Those little microbeads in your soap are plastic, and they're damaging the environment

Many consumers aren't aware, but those little microbeads in our bodywashes, toothpastes and face scrubs are running into oceans, lakes and rivers by the billions, and causing huge amounts of environmental damage. In fact, most of us didn't even realise they were plastic.

Illinois' decision to phase out plastic microbeads by 2019 was triggered after a 2013 study by the nonprofit 5 Gyres Institute found up to 1.1 million tiny beads per square kilometre in the Great Lakes, with an average of 17,000 per square kilometre. To put that into perspective, there are 330,000 plastic beads in a single bottle of Clean & Clear facial scrub, Sarah Zhang reports for Gizmodo. Most bills will still allow the use of biodegradable microbeads and exfoliants, such as salt and coffee granules.

New York and California are now considering similar legislation, and the Netherlands is proposing a ban for Europe. Companies such as Unilever, Proctor & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive are also promising to get rid of them.

So what's so damaging about these tiny beads? Their size is actually one of their most dangerous aspects, as the microbeads range from 0.0004 to 1.24 millimetres, they're too small and light to be picked up by water treatment plants, which often filter water using gravity. And once they're in waterways, they're the perfect size to be eaten by fish and other aquatic creatures, whose stomachs they then clog up.

Even more worrying is the fact that they're are also very good at attracting other toxic pollutants, such as oil and pesticides, and these toxins can then be passed into the body of the sea creatures that eat them - including ones that are eaten by humans and other large fish, which means they can make their way up the entire food chain.

Microbeads are extremely difficult to filter out of water once they're in there, as they're a similar size to tiny marine invertebrates such as zooplankton, which are crucial to the food chain. So for now the best option we have is to simply stop using products that contain them.

And in hindsight, developing a product where we wash thousands of tiny pieces of plastic down the drain every single day probably wasn't the best idea.