Microbeads – The Smallest Ingredient in our Plastic Soup
19 tons of microbeads are being washed down the drain in New York alone each year.Posted May 14, 2015
Would you knowingly poison fish and other marine life in order to have whiter teeth and softer skin? Would you risk poisoning yourself as well? Believe it or not, that is what you are doing when you buy products that have microbeads in them.
From the Tube to the Environment
Biodegradable scrubbing agents like salt crystals and ground nut shells are being replaced by microbeads in various body scrubs, shower gels, and toothpastes. These tiny plastic beads found today in most personal care products measure less than 1mm although some can be up to 5mm. All of the products containing these plastic beads are meant to be washed off so they end up going down the drain. The microbeads are too small to be caught by the filters used at most water treatment plants and therefore are washed through our sewer systems, eventually making their way into our rivers and canals.
Microbeads have been found in all of our Great Lakes. Our oceans and seas are their last stop.
So What’s the Problem?
Microbeads are made of polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polymethyl methacrylate, and nylon. It’s not just the plastic itself that is the problem, during the manufacturing process there are toxic chemicals added to the plastic like plasticisers and flame retardants. To make matters worse, the surfaces of microbeads absorb pollutants such as PCBs and DDT from the waters they are exposed to. The beads are not biodegradable – they can linger in the environment for centuries.
These tiny toxic sponges are ingested by marine life and their pollutants migrate up the food chain, eventually leading to human consumption. Not all microbeads make their way to our plates, however, because marine organisms also suffer from intestinal clogging, leading to starvation. Birds which feed off marine life have also been found with microbeads in their systems.
With the abrasive motion of wave action coupled with UV radiation exposure, the beads degrade into smaller pieces making it even easier for marine life to take in.
Marine researchers have noted that fish, molluscs, and other marine mammals have been found with the most common chemical plasticisers in their systems. The tiniest particles of plastic are ingested and retained by filter feeders such as mussels. A Belgian toxicologist, Colin Janssen with the University of Ghent has found that on average, each gram of mussel flesh contains one particle of plastic
In 2012, the non-governmental organization 5Gyres conducted research on the Great Lakes and found the highest numbers of plastic microbeads in samples taken from Lake Erie. In some cases, the samples showed more than 450,000 beads per square kilometer.
The same organization estimates that one single exfoliating facial cleanser contains 360,000 microbeads. For more information look to www.5gyres.org.
In a 2013 follow-up study, scientists dragged super-fine mesh across the Great Lakes and caught alarming amounts of plastic microbeads in their nets. Assistant professor of Chemistry, Lorena Rios-Mendoza, of the University of Wisconsin Superior’s Lake Superior Research Institute, claims to have found 1.7 million of the microbeads in their Lake Erie nets alone.
New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman recently released a report about the problem of microbeads. His office instigated a study led by Dr.Sherri Mason of the State University of New York at Fredonia, in which it was determined that out of 34 water treatment plants, both municipal and private, 25 of the plants were found to have microbeads in the samples taken of treated water. The study covered 17 counties across the state.
Attorney General Schneiderman states, “Today’s report confirms that from Lake Erie to Long Island Sound, microbeads, a harmful form of plastic pollution, are finding their way into waters across New York State.” To view his study see Discharging Microbeads to Our Waters: An Examination of Wastewater Treatment Plants in New York.
In an earlier report, Attorney General Schneiderman cited findings that 19 tons of microbeads are being washed down the drain in New York alone each year.
Dentists are Seeing it Too
Dr. Stephanie McGann, DMD FAGD, says it is not unusual for a dental hygienist to remove tiny blue beads that get embedded under the gums of patients who come in for
regular cleanings. According to Dr. McGann, this does not pose much of a concern for patients with healthy gums, but if there is a case of gum disease or if loose tissue is present, these beads can be irritating.
It Seems the Government is Listening
Just last year, Illinois became the first state to sign legislation calling for a ban on the manufacture of care products containing microbeads by the end of 2017, and the sale of the products by the end of 2018.
Also in 2014, the New York State Assembly passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act by a unanimous vote of 108-0.
On March 11 of this year, Washington state’s microbead bill passed the Senate unanimously as well.
Today, there are at least 15 microbead bills in various legislative stages across the country.
Outside the US
An international campaign is underway to address the issue of microbeads. Fundesland Bayem is the first German state to take a stand to the cosmetic industry by asking them to voluntarily refrain from using microbeads in their products.
In Australia, environmental minister of New South Wales, Rob Stokes, has called for a national ban on the manufacturing and selling of microbeads in personal care products.
The Pressure Works
The cosmetics and personal care industry is starting to respond to concerns about microbeads in the environment. L’oreal, the world’s largest cosmetics company, has pledged to stop use polyethylene by 2017. Proctor and Gamble has reported that they will remove the plastic beads from their products by 2017 as well. Unilever- the maker of Dove, Ponds, Vaseline, and Lifebuoy products has stopped using microbeads as of January 1 this year.
What You Can Do Now
- In the meantime, while waiting for legislation and voluntary industry actions to take effect, you can go to www.beatthemicrobead.org and download an app that allows consumers to scan a product barcode with a Smartphone to determine if it contains microbeads.
- Check labels of care products for the presence of polyethylene or polypropylene. Avoid buying or using these products.
- Baking soda does a great job of removing stains and brightening your smile. It is inexpensive, accessible, safe and easy to use.
- Smoother skin can be achieved with natural exfoliates such as salt crystals, ground up ingredients which can include apricot kernel shells, walnut and almond shells, or oatmeal. These biodegradable ingredients can be washed away with no worries about polluting our oceans or hurting marine organisms in any way.
Support Eartheasy’s “100% Profit Donation” Microbead-free Soaps
Eartheasy has developed its own signature brand of natural exfoliating soaps which have no microbead content. All proceeds from the sale of these soaps go to support the organizations noted below:
- Eartheasy HoneyBee Bar – Honey Oatmeal Soap – 100% of the net profits of this soap are donated to Pollinator Partnership, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting pollinators worldwide.
- Eartheasy Orca Bar – Truly Unscented Soaps – 100% of the net profits of this soap are donated to Ocean Alliance, an organization committed to promoting the health & sustainability of the world’s oceans.
- Eartheasy Orangutan Bar – Tangermint Scrub Soap – 100% of the net profits from this soap are donated to the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation.
- Eartheasy Leatherback Bar – Double Mint Soap – 100% of the net profits from this soap are donated to SEE Turtles a conservation organization dedicated to the protection of endangered turtle populations.
There are so many alternatives to using plastic microbeads when it comes to keeping ourselves clean that there is no reason to endanger our beautiful waters and marine life. We were clean and soft before the use of microbeads and we will continue to be so afterwards. Be safe. Be wise. Choose differently.
T.J. Blackman resides on a tiny island where she lives happily among the trees. She has various works in progress, including a novel that she works on while she is not writing articles for sites that pique her interest.