“Enjoy the deep cleansing power of (fill in the product name). Get your face really clean with (fill in the product name). Tired of unsightly blackheads? Wash them away with the scrubbing power of (fill in the product name).”
A number of skin care products advertise their ability to open pores and to exfoliate or remove dead skin cells. This extra cleansing is often the result of the suspension of tiny plastic beads- known as microbeads- in the cream or gel that is applied to the skin.
As the product is rubbed across the surface of the skin the microbeads tumble about, loosening the dirt caught in pores and the dry dead skin cells clinging to the skin. The detached dirt and skin cells are then suspended in the product and washed away at the end of the process.
Obviously the products are designed to meet the requirement of removing these particles from the skin thereby providing the “deep cleansing action” prized by the consumer. But, there is a failure of systems thinking at work with the microbeads.
When the beads are washed off the skin with the product, they follow the product and the rinse water down the drain. They then travel with the waste water into the treatment system where they ride the water into the rivers. This journey is set in motion by the consumer without any particular thought as to its consequences.
The release of the microbeads into the water has some unexpected consequences. Scientists studying the Great Lakes have discovered a significant presence of the microbeads in lake waters. The microbeads are typically 1 mm in diameter. Scientists towing nets with openings in the 0.33-millimeter range noticed that a significant quantity of microbeads became caught in their nets.
While the extent of the bead presence in the lakes and the effects of the pollution on the environment are interesting, the point for those of us interested in systems thinking has to do with the use of the microbeads in the products as a mechanism to meet the cleansing requirements of the customer.
The cleanser was designed to provide a way to loosen and remove dirt and skin that ordinary soap was unable to remove. The plastic beads are small enough to be suspended in the cleanser and light enough to be scrubbed across the targeted dirt and skin by the natural actions of rubbing the cleanser into the face. They are well-suited to solving the immediate question but . . . and this turns out to be a significant ecological downside . . . they are not biodegradable and they lack the characteristics that would let them become an innocuous part of the environment.
When the beads are swept up in the cream or cleanser they cross the cleaning system boundary. The design of the cleansing system contemplates the use but not the disposal of the beads. This is a failure to recognize the context system in which the cleanser must operate.
As we have discussed in a number of posts, there are three systems involved in any design. The first is the obvious system of interest: the system being designed. The second is the system with which we create the design and the third is the context system in which the design will “live.”
In the case of the cleanser, the context system includes the rinse water, the act of rinsing, the sink and drain, and the process of conveying rinse water, waste product, and beads into the waste water ecosystem. The scientists are finding the beads in the lakes and in the animals that make up parts of the context system.
Despite the fact that the product manufacturers did not think through the question of what happens to the beads once they have fulfilled their cleaning functions, their reaction to the discovery of the unintended consequences has been largely salutary. Several manufacturers have agreed to revisit the design of the cleansers and to remove the plastic beads from their products.
This response to the discovery of the unintended consequences of the plastic microbead design is commendable but the existence of the unintended consequences is an object lesson in the necessity of understanding the context system and the interaction of the system of interest with it.
By not considering what happens to the beads, the manufacturers were meeting their given cleansing requirements with factoring in the results of using the mechanism they chose. Plastic was specifically created to last. It is not biodegradable, not soluble in water and does not integrate into the ecosystem. It becomes a more or less permanent addition to the ecosystem. The small size of the microbeads allows them to be easily ingested by a variety of animals in the food chain which allows them to travel further, even beyond the water environment.
None of these consequences were intended by the manufacturers of the cleansing products. Because they were across the boundary of the design they escaped notice by the designers who were focused on the product at hand. As our world becomes “smaller” and more complex we must become more and more aware of what happens around us as we modify and introduce new factors into our environment.
The offer to redesign their products is absolutely the appropriate response to this problem. But a better solution would have been a design process that was fully cognizant of the relevant aspects of the context system. Better that microbeads had never floated in the waters of the Great Lakes at all.