Microbeads are polluting Hong Kong’s waters, and the source is likely local

By Edmund Ho

The tiny plastic beads are thought to come from cosmetic products washed down the city’s drains

By Edmund Ho |

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Plastic microbeads are commonly found in everyday products such as facial scrubs and toothpaste.

More than 60 per cent of water samples collected from Hong Kong ocean were found to contain plastic microbeads, according to new research from the University of Hong Kong.

Researchers found 380,000 beads per square kilometre of ocean water around the city.

Microbeads are a particular type of plastic waste; they are usually measure smaller than one millimetre in size and can be different colours and shapes. Because they are commonly used in cosmetic products such as facial scrubs and toothpaste, they are often washed down the drain.

The research team, working out of the Department of Earth Sciences and the Swire Institute of Marine Science of HKU, cooperated with environmental NGO Plastic Free Seas to collect over 100 samples from seven different sites around Hong Kong. The amount of microbeads was found to represent around five per cent of all microplastic pollution in the city’s waters.

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Researchers said that most of the beads were transparent and made of polyethylene, a plastic used in cosmetic products commonly sold in Hong Kong, making it likely that the pollution came from local sources.

Students were shocked to find that this was a problem in Hong Kong’s coastal waters.

Karina Chan, 14, from Shatin College, said she hadn’t heard of microbeads, but that the government should have laws to prevent such pollution.

“I knew that there was pollution from Hong Kong, but I never knew it could come from everyday things like toothpaste.”

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Jimmy Jim, 16, from Ying Wa College, agreed, and said that he thinks the use of microbeads “should be phased out of these products, because once they enter into the ecosystem, they have the potential to come back and harm us”.

Others said they would like to see less use of the product as well, but noted the lack of alternatives.

“I would continue to use what I’m using now, but I would be willing to pay more for natural alternatives. However, there just aren’t many choices on the market,” said Li Shu-ying, 18, from NLSI Lui Kwok Pat Fong College.

While measuring pollution by microbeads is difficult because it is hard to identify and collect large enough samples, researchers have pointed out that many other countries such as Britain, Canada, and New Zealand have already banned the use of microbeads. They suggest replacing microbeads with natural alternatives such as sugar, salt, or oatmeal.

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge