Microbeads are tiny particles of plastic used in hundreds of cosmetics and personal care products such as facial scrubs, soaps, and toothpaste. These microbeads, typically used as abrasives and exfoliants, are flowing by the billions into the Great Lakes and other waterways.
Consumers end up discharging these tiny pieces of plastic into waterways when they wash off products containing microbeads. Because of their small size and buoyancy, wastewater treatment plants are not able to filter them out and they are discharged directly into our rivers and lakes. Once discharged, there are no known methods to effectively remove microplastics or microbeads from the environment.
In a recent report, researchers from seven institutions have estimated that every day, a whopping 808 trillion microbeads are washed down drains in the United States, while some 8 trillion microbeads are dumped into our waterways in effluent released from wastewater treatment plants.
That is enough to cover more than 300 tennis courts daily. Once in aquatic environments, these microbeads, which are made of hydrocarbons, absorb pollutants and are often mistaken for fish eggs, zooplankton, or other forms of food by wildlife, which ingest them.
“Microbeads become reservoirs of contaminants, wherever the current is taking them,” said Alison Chase, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The plastic microbeads are not necessary in any form, and there is a big question about whether or not these could be potentially passed onto people when we eat seafood.”
Stephanie Green, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University and co-author of the report, microbeads present an unprecedented challenge due to their size, said… “People are becoming increasingly aware of the problem of persisting plastics in the environment,” Green said. “But these are tiny little fragments of plastic and many people are using these products, but are unaware that plastic is involved — it’s an out of sight, out of mind problem.”
“Some of our concerns with the other state bills that have passed is that they allow a loophole for “biodegradable” plastics that we know don’t break down in a marine environment,” said Anna Cummins, executive director and co-founder of 5 Gyres, an organization working to reduce plastic pollution in the oceans. She celebrated the passage of the California ban as game-changing. Given the size of the California market, she is optimistic that this legislation could force more sweeping changes. “Manufacturers are not not going to be able to create a product for California, and a different product for other states,” she added.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed a bill into law in July that bans the manufacturing and sale of personal care products containing tiny plastic beads that are known to pollute waterways.
The law makes Wisconsin one of seven states including Illinois and New Jersey to ban the tiny pieces of non-biodegradable plastic known as microbeads, often used as an exfoliant in soaps and toothpaste. It bans manufacturing of microbead products at the beginning of 2018 and their sale at the beginning of 2019.
Some manufacturers are already responding to what appears to be a shift in demand. Many multinational companies such as Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, The Body Shop, and IKEA have pledged to stop using microbeads in their personal care products. While authors of the report note the positive impact that such internal policies have had on the industry, they believe that a sweeping, federal ban will be necessary to secure real change in aquatic environments.
Microbeads are so small they often slip through wastewater treatment systems and end up in nearby waterways, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.
In 2014, Illinois became the first state to ban microbeads after a team of researchers with 5 Gyres Institute, a California-based environmental group, found high levels of beads in 2012 from samples taken at Lakes Erie, Superior and Huron. Scientists have also found beads in the ocean.
Fish mistake microbeads for food and eat them, threatening the ecosystem and human health, according to Clean Wisconsin.
The Personal Care Products Council, a trade association representing the cosmetics and personal care products industry, supports bans on microbeads.
“We are guided by the core value to do the right thing based on the best available science when addressing product safety or the environmental impact of our products,” the council said in a statement after the Illinois bill was signed into law.
California’s State Assembly has approved a measure to ban microbeads, which are touted by big companies as skin exfoliators.
A 2013 study found as many as 1.7 million of the tiny plastic particles per square kilometer in Michigan’s Lake Erie, one of the bodies of water in the Great Lakes Region where many of our debris end up.
Because they’re so small, microbeads don’t get filtered out by wastewater treatment plants. Instead, they get discharged directly into rivers, lakes, and the ocean.
There, fish, turtles, and other aquatic wildlife feed on the tiny bits of plastic, which to them are often indistinguishable from food. But rather than simply getting eaten and discharged by the animals, the microbeads become lodged in the animals’ stomachs or intestines. When this happens, the animals often stop eating and die of starvation or suffer other health problems.
“We have the evidence that the micro plastics do cause harm,” Marcus Eriksen, the executive director of the 5 Gyres Institute, a research group who led the 2013 study, told Scientific American. “I am hoping we can translate that research into some positive action.”
Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, and Procter & Gamble have all made pledges to phase out the most common kind of microbead from products.
The International Campaign Against Microbeads in Cosmetics has compiled a helpful list of the products that likely contain microbeads.
4 Things You Can Do To Stop Contributing Microbeads to Waterways
- Avoid personal care products that contain microbeads by checking the product ingredient list for “polyethylene” or “polypropylene” microbeads. The 5 Gyres Institute created a free app, Beat the Microbead, which can scan a product’s bar code and tell if it contains the beads. ( beatthemicrobead.org ) Here is a PDF to download that contains a list of all the microbead containing products to avoid.
- Look for products that are using readily available alternatives such as ground almonds, oatmeal, sea salt, and pumice.
- Support a ban on microplastics and microbeads in consumer products.
- Properly dispose of any unwanted personal care products, including those containing microbeads, at local POD Drop-off locations. Drop-off locations can be found at pillsinthepods.com
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