I first wrote this article (under a different title) for the Verefina blog. Microbeads are causing major problems for our water and marine life, but they don’t have to. Read on to learn more about microbeads and how you can avoid them.
Microbeads are frequently added to products like soap, facial cleansers, and toothpaste. These tiny pieces of plastic (yes, plastic!) are used in products as exfoliants and are sometimes touted for their ability to deeply clean skin. Once they’ve served that purpose, though, microbeads accumulate in the environment and negatively impact wildlife and humans alike.
Where Do Microbeads Go When We’re Done with Them?
Microbeads are designed to go down the drain when these products are rinsed off, but their tiny size makes them nearly impossible to be filtered out at water treatment plants. So they make their way into waterways and are accumulating in our rivers, lakes, and oceans at staggering levels. The office of New York’s state’s attorney general recently reported that about 19 tons of microbeads are washing into that state’s wastewater every year (source). And a research team studying the Great Lakes a few years ago found an average of 17,000 bits of tiny plastic items per square kilometer in Lake Michigan (source).
A Threat to Animals and People
Once in waterways, microbeads pose a threat for marine life, and, eventually, for people. Microbeads can absorb and concentrate environmental pollutants, such as pesticides, making them far more toxic than the water around them. Aquatic animals may mistake microbeads for fish eggs or other food, and therefore consume them. In some cases, the pollutants that are absorbed into microbeads contain endocrine disruptors that may potentially affect the reproductive cycles of the animals that eat them. These toxins can gradually make their way up the food chain and can end up in the seafood that we eat. And in some cases, microbeads affect larger animals directly. The northern right whale, an already endangered species, may be exposed to these toxic plastics through filter-feeding.
Addressing the Problem of Microbeads
Concern over microbeads has been growing for several years, and some states have recently enacted legislation that would restrict the use of microbeads. Illinois, for example, has a law that requires companies to stop manufacturing products with microbeads by the end of 2018 and prohibits them from selling these products by the end of 2019. Maine, New Jersey, Colorado, Indiana, and Maryland also have laws that restrict the use of microbeads.
Some environmentalists argue that these laws do not go far enough because they leave open the possibility of using biodegradable- but minimally tested- alternatives. Polylactic acid, for example, can break down faster than other plastics, but only under high heat and other conditions not usually found in aquatic areas. “Everything on earth is biodegradable on a geologic time scale. It’s not biodegradable in a meaningful time frame,” says Stiv Wilson, an environmentalist and director of campaigns at the nonprofit group The Story of Stuff Project (source). Polyhydroxyalkanoate, or PHA, a naturally-occurring plastic produced by bacteria, is also being developed for use in personal care products. PHA can potentially break down in marine environments in about a month. But that’s assuming that marine animals don’t eat it first.
In response to the backlash to microbeads, some companies have stated that they will voluntarily remove the beads from their products. Johnson & Johnson, for example, says that it will discontinue the use of microbeads by 2017. L’Oreal and Procter & Gamble have announced that they are phasing out microbeads in their products, too.
What Can Consumers do NOW?
While these actions are a step in the right direction, the problem requires a greater sense of urgency. With an annual level of 19 tons of microbeads going into New York’s wastewater alone, we need to respond now. Companies may have several years before they are required to remove microbeads from their products, but consumers can start avoiding them today. Choose products that do not have polyethylene or polypropylene in the ingredient list. Or, better yet, opt for products that use all natural exfoliants, such as sugar, ground almonds, or oatmeal.
Microbeads are a threat to the health of both animals and people, but they don’t have to be. By avoiding products that contain microbeads and choosing natural exfoliants instead, consumers can send a message to companies that we don’t want plastic in our personal care products.
Verefina Products with Natural Exfoliants
Want to exfoliate naturally? These products are microbead-free:
Abrams, Rachel. “Fighting Pollution from Microbeads Used in Soaps and Creams.” The New York Times. 22 May 2015. Web. 15 September 2015.
Beck, Julie. “How Face Wash Pollutes Water.” The Atlantic. 17 June 2014. Web. 14 September 2015.
Corley, Cheryl. “Why Those Tiny Microbeads in Soap May Pose Problem for the Great Lakes.” National Public Radio. 21 May 2014. Web. 15 September 2015.
“Microbeads in the Great Lakes.” Watershed Council. Web. 14 September 2015.
Warner, Kelsey. “What are Microbeads and Why is Canada Banning Them?” The Christian Science Monitor. 7 August 2015. Web. 14 August 2015.