There are signs that the era where plastic microbeads from personal care products pollute bodies of water worldwide and aquatic food chains might be drawing to a close.
Microbeads are miniscule spheres of plastic commonly added as abrasives to personal care products like face scrubs, shower gels and toothpaste. They’re designed to wash down the drain, but because of their small size, they escape sewage treatment plants. Once discharged into oceans, rivers or lakes or onto land, they’re virtually impossible to clean up.
They’re typically made of polyethylene or polypropylene and do not biodegrade within any meaningful human time scale, especially in aquatic environments. And, like other plastics, they attract and accumulate oily toxins commonly found in bodies of water (e.g. DDT, PCBs and flame retardants).
Microbeads resemble fish eggs, likely contributing to the documented ingestion of microplastics in the millimeter and under size range by sea life in bottom tiers of the ocean food web, including zooplankton, sandworms, barnacles and small crustaceans. The potential for ingested microplastics to transfer up aquatic food chains is very real, as demonstrated by studies revealing transfer from the tiniest to larger zooplankton and from mussels to shore crabs. There is parallel risk for harmful chemicals associated with microplastics to increasingly concentrate in animal tissues, adding threat to humans and other life forms dining at the top of the chain.
Scientist are also discovering direct ingestion of microplastics by fish which humans eat and that toxic chemicals from the plastics transfer to fish flesh.
Beginning with the pioneering measurements of plastic debris in the North Pacific Gyre by the Long Beach-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation, the buildup of plastic pollution in all five of the world’s oceanic gyres is now well-established. Together with the recent discovery of microplastic accumulation in the U.S. Great Lakes and some rivers, this has spurred tangible momentum among some U.S. politicians toward elimination of microbeads in personal care products.
For example, the Great Lake states of Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and New York all considered legislative bans last year, though Illinois emerged as the only state to enact one, effective late 2017. The 2013 study spearheaded by Santa Monica’s 5 Gyres Institute reported that much of the microplastic debris in the Great Lakes strongly resembles microbeads in cosmetics. Lake Ontario was most polluted, approximately 1.1 million microplastic fragments per square kilometer.
Then just this April, New Jersey became the second state to enact a ban, citing that manufacturers were already largely on board, given pledges to phase out microbeads by several corporations including Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal, Proctor & Gamble and Unilever. Besides, alternative abrasives can be made from many natural materials, like beeswax, walnut shells, apricot pits, sand or salt crystals.
Meanwhile, California reintroduced a proposed statewide ban in February 2015 (AB 888, Bloom) after a similar bill failed passage last year by a single vote. California’s ban would take effect Jan. 2020. New York’s Attorney General has also signaled intention to shoot for a ban again this year, citing that microbeads were found in three-quarters of samples of treated effluent from New York waste treatment plants. Additional states currently considering bans include Connecticut, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington.
There’s even a possible national ban in the works. Two U.S. Representatives, Fred Upton of Michigan and Frank Pallone of New Jersey, have re-introduced a bill which stalled last year that would ban the sale of products with microbeads starting Jan. 2018. Because Upton is the Republican chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Pallone is the ranking committee Democrat, there is greater hope for successful passage this time around.
Things are heating up outside the United States too. The international Beat the Micro Bead campaign touts 66 participating NGOs in 32 countries and offers a free download app allowing shoppers across the globe to scan barcodes to identify which products contain plastic microbeads. The campaign’s website also posts lists of products by country that contain microbeads.
Moreover, Germany plans to promote an international effort to reduce waste from plastics, including microbeads, at the June economic summit of the Group of Seven (G-7) nations.
Appearing in the February issue of Science magazine, the findings of the first large-scale study to estimate how much plastic is actually going into the oceans are nothing short of shocking. Using data from 192 coastal countries, the researchers calculated that, just in the year 2010, between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons (roughly 10.5 to 28 billion pounds) entered the oceans. If nothing is done to stem the inflow of plastics, those numbers could increase ten-fold by 2025.
Given these sobering figures, world-wide elimination of microbeads in personal care products, an entirely avoidable source of plastic pollution, can’t happen soon enough.