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Find Out if Your Facial Scrub Has Plastic Microbeads With New App

Health + Wellness

Plastic microbeads, often found in personal hygiene products, are getting rinsed down the drain and ending up in the Great Lakes and other waterways.

To alert customers to these barely visible plastics, a new smartphone App lets consumers scan barcodes to see if a product contains the beads.

The App was developed by the North Sea Foundation and the Plastic Soup Foundation, both based in the Netherlands.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The beads are used in many common consumer goods as abrasives, said Sherri A. Mason, an associate professor of chemistry and the program coordinator of environmental sciences at State University of New York–Fredonia.

“They’re also used in boat cleansers and other products as well,” said Mason.

The plastic pollution is simply the result of people washing their faces and brushing their teeth, she said. “It’s an unfortunate reality that people just go to the store and see products that look really cool, like a bottle that has floating beads in a clear liquid,” she said. “They are appealing to the eye from a marketing standpoint but then they wash their face and the beads go down the drain.”

Manufacturers sometimes place the small beads in products to give consumers an exfoliating scrub.

“In personal care products they act to gently scrub away dead skin in much the same way a sponge would,” as listed in Johnson and Johnson’s ingredient policy.

The problem is that wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to filter or break the plastics down, according to Mason.

“Wastewater treatment plants were designed in the 1940s,” Mason said. “A wide variety of pharmaceutical products don’t get removed either, you find these chemicals such as birth control or Ibuprofen. You find various soaps and makeups, things that people use and then they wash down the drain, and the wastewater treatment plant wasn’t used to rid these products from the water.”

Mason doesn’t worry that the tiny plastics are getting into drinking water. That water goes through fabric filtration systems before reaching taps.

It is wastewater that concerns her.

“We have different standards for wastewater than for drinking water,” she said. “We don’t think of the need of cleaning it up to the same degree.”

The plastics can be digested by aquatic life like plankton or zebra mussels and then passed along the food chain to human consumption, Mason said.

The beads can pick up on other pollutants in the water and pass it along to humans, according to the 5 Gyres Institute.

The 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit organization that researches plastic pollution in the ocean, recently teamed up with Mason to study how much plastic is accumulating in the Great Lakes.

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Preliminary studies have found plastic particles in the guts of fish, according to Mason.

“I tend to just remind people that water is a fundamental necessity of life, It’s the first thing we do when we go to other planets, we look for water,” said Mason. “Life can’t exist without water. The fact that we’re contaminating it with something that never goes away and is so small that it can be eaten by plankton and then accumulate up the food chain—it’s fundamentally something we shouldn’t be doing.”

The highest concentrations were found in 2012 in Lake Erie. Researchers found polyethylene and polypropylene that included traces of aluminum silicate and coal ash, often coming from coal power plants. Some of the samples had 450,000 particles of plastic per square kilometer. With lakes so vast—they are 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water—it is hard to determine just how much plastic is going into them, Mason said.

The free App has three alert settings to tell you if a product contains harmful plastic. The red alert means that it has microbeads. Orange means that it has them now, but the manufacturer has decided to begin phasing out the plastics, and future products will no longer contain the beads. Green means the product is microbead free.

The App can be downloaded for Apple products at the Apple App Store and for Google products at the Google Play Store. It is also available on Windows Phone Store.

Researchers began asking companies to phase out the use of the tiny plastics in 2011, according to 5 Gyres. Unilever and Johnson and Johnson promised to phase them out.

“We have stopped developing new products containing plastic microbeads and we are currently conducting an environmental safety assessment of a promising alternative,” according to Johnson and Johnson’s ingredient policy.

Meanwhile the key is publicity, Mason said. “I appreciate the companies saying they plan to phase them out in a few years; I would like to see people make a choice to change their products now. It’s very easy to go to the store and find things on the shelf that don’t use plastics and use apricot seeds or walnut husks as natural products as their exfoliants.”

People often don’t know the scientific language and terms of these tiny plastics when reading labels on products, according to Mason. “I think this App is very helpful and very useful. People are often asking me because they don’t know what to look for on the ingredients, so having a color coded App on their phone can be beneficial.”

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

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Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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