If you’ve spent any time in the skin care aisle at your local grocery store, you almost certainly have heard of microbeads—teeny tiny particles of plastic that provide exfoliating properties to a slew of facial scrubs. It turns out that those tiny particles are causing a big problem, and may soon be banned.
ScienceDirect published a Marine Pollution Bulletin late last year that details the effects of microbeads on the Great Lakes. Based on collected and analyzed samples, researchers found that Lake Michigan contained roughly 17,000 microbeads per square kilometer, and that Lake Ontario had more than 1 million per square kilometer. These particles are so tiny that conventional wastewater filters can’t catch them, so they make the long journey all the way to lakes, which wreaks havoc on plant and animal life.
They sink to the bottom of the lakes, much like sand and sentiment, but they kill underwater flora. Some bottom-feeding fish and other sea life eat the microbeads, probably thinking they’re fish eggs, and eventually they stuff their stomachs full of undigestible plastics and die—or they’re eaten by larger fish, who then die for the same reason. This is yet another piece of evidence to support the notion that we’re in the age of the anthropocene—a geological age that marks the effects of humanity on the earth.
Microbeads, like other plastics, can also soak up other toxins, which similarly affect small fish, then bigger fish, and eventually humans. Unfortunately, the microbeads already lining our waters can’t really be extracted—getting rid of something so small would also end up getting rid of plankton, which many creatures subsist on. The best plan is to ban the use and try to limit the amount of additional plastics in our lakes and oceans.
Somewhat surprisingly, soap and cleanser manufacturers have agreed to stop using microbeads. Unilever, which owns popular companies such as Dove and Noxema, got on board after a successful campaign by environmental groups. Frank Pallone, Jr., a state representative from New Jersey, introduced a bill this week called the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2014, which seeks a nationwide prohibition on the sale and distribution of soaps and other care products across that contain microbeads by 2018.
A few weeks ago, Illinois based a state ordinance to phase them out beginning in 2017 and eliminating them by 2019. New York, California, and Ohio are currently trying to push through similar bills. Despite this action, GovTrack estimates that a nationwide ban has about a 4% chance of passing the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and only a 1% chance of actually becoming law. Let’s hope the manufacturers phase out microbeads on their own even if they don’t legally have to.
Just one bottle of a microbead-containing facial scrub can dump over 300,000 microbeads into the water system, which means the sooner companies phase out the tiny plastics, the better. There are many natural alternatives to microbeads, such as salts and oatmeal, so hopefully companies continue to be agreeable to switching to something more eco-friendly.