Microbeads

by Jessica Matthys

 

Have you ever thought about microbeads? Those exfoliating bits you encounter every day in your face wash and soaps. Those beads that may have been the reason you bought the products in the first place. Unfortunately, you will probably stop seeing those little guys in the near future. Those seemingly harmless beads cleaning your pores are actually extremely harmful for your personal health and the health of the environment.

 

The beads end up in bays, rivers, streams, and eventually make their way into the ocean. There, they stay forever because they never break down and biodegrade[1]. As aquatic species consume the microbeads, they make their way up the food chain, harming the aquatic ecosystem as well as consumers of seafood. Studies show that over a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals die every year from plastics, with microbeads contributing significantly to this death toll[2]. Even plankton have been caught on video consuming microscopic plastic particles. Furthermore, plastic microbeads absorb toxics such as motor oil, flame-retardants, pesticides, and other industrial chemicals[3]. In fact, “a single microbead can be up to a million times more toxic than the water around it”[4].

 

So, what is causing this issue?

 

Hundreds of trillions of microbeads are flushed down the sink every day, travelling through the pipes to wastewater treatment plants. However, these plants are not adequately equipped to filter out and dispose of these tiny beads. A small fraction of the beads escape through effluent waste. And when the sludge (solid waste) is spread over land, the remainder of the beads often makes their way to aquatic habitats via runoff from precipitation and irrigation.

 

Because the beads are so small, it would be hard to address the problem by improving the wastewater treatment plant infrastructure by for example installing better filters. Similarly, it would be nearly impossible to enact large-scale cleanup methods and fish all of the tiny beads out of the oceans[5]. Instead, efforts are being made to solve the problem by looking upstream and eliminating the source.

 

Many states have passed legislation that will ban the production and distribution of plastic microbeads in the near future. Illinois was the first to do so in June 2014[6], fueled in part by the finding of an average of 43,000 plastic microparticles per square kilometer in the Great Lakes[7]. California recently joined the ranks of Illinois, Colorado, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maine, Maryland, and Wisconsin in taking action on the issue[8]. Just this year, Obama signed a law prohibiting personal-care products from containing plastic microbeads as of July 1, 2017 and prohibiting the sale of such products beginning July 1, 2019[9]. Over 70 NGOs in the US and around the world continue to push for further action[10].

 

Given that over 1,000 personal care products include plastic microbeads, the phase out of microbeads may have economic ramifications[11]. Many people buy these products because of the function of microbeads as exfoliators. The question becomes, how do we balance economic growth with environmental health? And, is it up to the state or the country to decide how we tackle this plastic microbead problem?

 

Over the last couple of years, stakeholders have opened up a nationwide conversation about the future of plastic microbeads. As the issue garnered more public support and attention in the media, industry leaders became willing to consider phasing out microbeads from their products. For example, L’Oreal, Proctor & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson have pledged to remove microbeads or search for natural alternatives in the next couple of years[12]. The plastics industry even supports Obama’s national law concerning the phase out of plastic microbeads[13].

 

Although progress has been made, the wording in the new legislature concerning plastic microbeads is misleading. Many of the laws only address microbeads in “personal care” or “rinse-off” products, but there are many other applications for microbeads that still end up down the drain, such as lotions, cleaners, nail polish, and cosmetics[14]. Furthermore, many laws call for the removal of “non-biodegradable” microbeads, but define biodegradable as something that changes its shape over time. Thus, they allow plastics that only slightly break down to slip through the law and continue polluting the waterways[15]. In the future these laws should include wording to call for the removal of any materials that are persistent, bioaccumulative, or toxic.

 

Additionally, the market for exfoliating products remains strong, so it will be important to find a cheap and sustainable alternative to plastic. Naturally exfoliating materials, such as pumice, oatmeal, walnut husks, apricot shells, and cocoa beans, may prove to be the solution[16].

 

The laws are a step in the right direction, but the reality is that the issue of plastics polluting waterways is larger than plastic microbeads. Many larger pieces of plastic end up in our streams, rivers, and oceans. There, they eventually break down into microparticle sizes, but never fully biodegrade[17]. The concentration of plastic microparticles in the Great Lakes, mentioned earlier, is due in a large part to other sources of plastics. To address the problem of microparticles in waterways, there is a long road ahead that will include cooperation with industry and implementation of a suite of policy tools.

 


Comments

 

Sarina

I agree that this policy is long overdue – but unfortunately, I think banning microbeads is only beginning to touch upon a very important problem. Plastics in the ocean are a huge issue that we tend to ignore because the largest amounts of plastics end up far offshore polluting the middle of ocean gyres. Few people ever see the harmful effects of these large plastic build-ups.

When you mention that the policy defines biodegradable as anything that changes shape over time, we avoid addressing one of the most pressing issues of plastic in the ocean and how it does change shape and break down – but only into chemicals that are ingestible and harmful to many organisms.

Policy actions like this remind us how long it takes for such phase-outs to happen, and how difficult and time-consuming taking action can be. Will we actually see the end of microbeads by 2017? What about other plastic pollutants in the ocean? This brings up the much larger topic of waste management, especially with recyclable plastic and non-biodegradable material. I question if we will ever find better biodegradable materials to replace these harmful pollutants.

 

 

Micaela

The banning of the bead– for it is definitely a policy that is long over due. With down the drain such a place of “other,” we are so unconscious of the drastic effects of what is simply washed away. Similar problems of birth control hormones entering streams causing higher levels of estrogen and fish reproductive issues further proof the unintended consequences of “down the drain”. With both situations, purported harmless trash quickly becomes the means to an end. With so many microbeads already plaguing the world’s oceans I was also curious as to if there are any plausible retroactive measures for filtering microbeads out of the world’s water? However, I definitely agree with your point that the most effective method of reduction is to shut dispersal off at the source. I also found the validity of the usefulness of microbeads an interesting point. What do the minute plastic balls actually do for our skin? Is exfoliation just a selling point? Even if so, with alternatives of pumice, coco beans, and apricot shells as viable substitutes, microbeads quickly become moot and policy must be furthered to address the complete phaseout of the harmful bead.
Sarina

I agree that this policy is long overdue – but unfortunately, I think banning microbeads is only beginning to touch upon a very important problem. Plastics in the ocean are a huge issue that we tend to ignore because the largest amounts of plastics end up far offshore polluting the middle of ocean gyres. Few people ever see the harmful effects of these large plastic build-ups.

When you mention that the policy defines biodegradable as anything that changes shape over time, we avoid addressing one of the most pressing issues of plastic in the ocean and how it does change shape and break down – but only into chemicals that are ingestible and harmful to many organisms.

Policy actions like this remind us how long it takes for such phase-outs to happen, and how difficult and time-consuming taking action can be. Will we actually see the end of microbeads by 2017? What about other plastic pollutants in the ocean? This brings up the much larger topic of waste management, especially with recyclable plastic and non-biodegradable material. I question if we will ever find better biodegradable materials to replace these harmful pollutants.

Diana

 

Hey Jess!

I really appreciate that you chose to write about microbeads—this wasn’t an issue I was familiar with, so I learned a lot from your blog. I had no idea how severe the problem was, perhaps in part because I never knew the beads were actually plastic. As you mentioned, plastic is so environmentally deleterious because rather than biodegrade, it just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. I think the way you broke down possible solutions to the problem was very thorough—first you mention addressing the problem via better wastewater treatment, but emphasize that this isn’t a viable solution because the beads are so small that it would be hard to capture them, even with better wastewater filters. The way you described the problem reminded me of a similar problem with birth control; like microbeads, birth control isn’t effectively filtered out of wastewater and makes its way into the bodies of water, including the ocean. From there, it bioaccumulates and causes severe ecological damage to aquatic life—I even read one instance of effeminate alligators. Ineffective or not thorough wastewater treatment is a really pervasive problem, not just with microbeads but with a host of other medicines and chemicals that we hastily toss in the toilet. That being said, it would be incredibly difficult to improve our treatment facilities such that it could effectively filter out all of these small particles. Bearing that in mind, I like how you underscored the importance of banning these microbeads in general, and using natural exfoliants instead. You also nicely address the limitations of the current microbead policies when you mention that these policies only apply to products you wash off. I wonder why that is. This narrowing seems to severely compromise the efficacy of the policy. Is it just that it would have been far more politically complicated to get a nationwide ban on microbeads in any product?

 

Hannah

I think that you excellently lay out the issues that surround the use of microbeads: their inability to biodegrade, their propensity to be ingested by birds and marine animals, and the difficulty of filtering them due to size (I was shocked to read that some are even small enough for plankton to eat). I also like how you lay out the many different routes that microbeads can take to the ocean, suggesting the difficulty to propose policies to reduce the effects of microbeads given the sheer range of places they can come from, including the many products they are in. I think it is important to note, as you did in the second paragraph, that microbeads are much more toxic than the water around them. Plastic has an incredible ability to absorb toxins, and given the way they travel up the food chain, I pose a question: what do you think this is doing to the health of humans who ingest fish in microbead-laden waters?

Even though steps are taken to slowly phase out microbeads, with the ban on production and eventual ban of sale in 2019, there will still be microbeads sold in products for a while to come. While there is no way to keep people from buying these products, I think important steps should be taken to educate people and to make informed purchases in the meantime. For anyone interested, there is an app available in the Apple App Store called Plastics! It intends to “beat the microbead,” and can be used to scan the barcode of previously logged products so you can determine if it contains microbeads and plastics before you buy it, in case you don’t know what you’re looking for in the label. I’d also like to note that exfoliating products with alternative and natural materials like pumice and apricot shells are better at exfoliating skin because of their rough edges, and are the better product, in my opinion, by both environmental and cosmetic standards.

 

Quinn

I really liked this blog post because I used to use a face wash with microbeads until I switched cleansers, but it wasn’t because I was aware of the impact of the beads I just simply didn’t like them that much. What I think is the most important thing about this blog is that people often don’t realize the impact something so small (like a microbead) can have on an environment. Although the beads start small, because they don’t degrade they only increase in numbers, thereby multiplying their toxicity over time. Really, microbeads a an insidious pollutant because they are something you wouldn’t expect to be so dangerous. I think it’s important to highlight these kinds of environmental impacts because, yes plastic contaminants in general are something we should be aware of and limit our use of, but that’s easier done with contaminants/waste we already can understand as being dangerous. For example, when I hear about a fish or bird who chokes on a plastic bag or a tin can disposed of in the ocean, that makes sense to me and I register that as something I should try and prevent through my personal action. I don’t think that way, until now of course, about something so seemingly harmless as a microbead.

Delaney

This is such an important issue that I’m happy to read from your blog is finally getting some federal attention. In many of our discussions this semester we’ve talked about how market-based strategies are slowly replacing command-and-control techniques, and how federal regulation might not always be the greatest way to solve a problem. I think your explanation of the microbead problem justifies regulation at the federal level as the only effective way to implement a solution as quickly as it needs to happen.

On a stylistic note, your blog does an excellent job of including up-to-date statistics and other relevant sources, and even includes a link to a video (which was intriguing) that gets the reader involved. I think posts like yours do a great job of convincing their audiences on the grounds of urgency and credibility because it is clear from your post that you made a concerted effort to understand the ways in which this issue is currently being debated and where it might be headed.

 

Reid

When I was younger, I would get so excited about buying the clean and clear face wash with the microbeads, and only when I was writing my own blog post did I realize how terrible the microbeads are for the environment and the ocean’s ecosystems. I am happy that there is now more publicity on the matter, but I really do not think that people understand how full circle microbeads come (and really any other plastic that finds its way into the ocean). While it seems pretty harmless to buy some exfoliant face wash, I do not think a lot of people realize that the beads going down the drain could easily end up in the stomachs of the fish in their dinner plate a couple years down the line.

You mention that the language of the new legislature concerning, and that is something I have definitely learned by taking this class. While the title and summary of a piece of legislation can sound promising, it is in the specific wording where solutions really get hashed out. I wonder if there was some incentive lump the definition of microbeads into areas of personal care and rinse off products instead of being specifically defined not only by function and use by also by size and chemical makeup–that personally seems like a better way to cover all the bases. However, even if this legislation is not as comprehensive as we would like, it is definitely making very necessary strides.

You mention that the market for exfoliating products is still very strong, and so I wonder if we will see beauty companies make moves to more biodegradable products like you mentioned or find a loophole and continue to create a product with cheaper and not environmentally friendly exfoliants. In 2019 we will know.

 

Riley

I had heard about this policy and was very excited when I heard that President Obama decided to implement it nationally. It was definitely an overdue policy that millions of Americans probably never considered until it passed. I know that I for years used products with microbeads, never considering that they could possibly hurt the environment. It is so easy to ignore tiny plastic beads washing away down the drain. When you show the numbers though (as you did in your post) they add up to a lot and hurt the oceans immensely. Your post acknowledges that this legislation was a win for the environment and America as a whole, but it takes a bit of a negative tone at the end, as there is a lot more that can be done.

While I completely agree with you that the legislation could go further to eliminate microbeads entirely (not just the non-biodegradable ones), I think we should keep in mind how huge it is that environmental legislation like this was passed first in states and then at the national level relatively quickly. In so many cases, industry uses money and lobbying to block progressive environmental legislation. Here, we see a case where many players in the industry are admitting that microbeads need to be banned. It’s easy to take a negative stance (again, because there is so much that needs to be done), but perhaps we can look at this legislation as potential for being a leader in the sense that it will induce other industries or companies to follow suit. Only when the big players acknowledge their negative impacts on the environment and decide to do something about them will we see huge change in the environment.
Bryce

This informative article on microbeads plays very well into Reid’s article on the number of “trash vortexes” we find in our world’s oceans. I really enjoyed the note you made regarding the definition of “biodegradable” in the recently passed H.R. 1321. Nearly everything changes shape and form over time via natural wear and tear. Entropy is everywhere. Even the largest bits of plastic in our ocean “break down.” However, what they break down into is not organic compounds, but rather smaller fragments of the same plastic. I believe you are right in encouraging the personal hygiene market to consider “natural” exfoliators. Not only is it a great marketing scheme (ie. an oatmeal rub sounds a lot more natural than some plastic beads), but it is also far better for the environment and possibly even our own health when you consider the natural antioxidants and minerals found in some of your proposed exfoliators.

I’m really impressed at how the hygiene industry and plastic industry got on board with the new law. How did this occur? Were microbeads simply not profitable, or was it a way to help these industries save face and increase sales? There must be some great political story behind that. The implications, though, of getting the industry on board is impressive. With one of the world’s largest markets for microbeads now going offline, the ripple effect can be seen in Europe and elsewhere. Cosmetics Europe, who represents over 4000 European cosmetics companies, recommended that its members stop production of microbead-containing goods by 2020. Other cities and countries are considering bans on purchase. This is one small step in the right direction when it comes to protecting our waterways, our oceans, and our own personal health — because it all comes back to us in the end. It is never a fun day when you were hoping to dine on some wild Atlantic salmon and then happen to find the glimmer of a few plastics beads hidden in the filet.

 

Dipro

 

Great blog post! The issue of microbeads is an interesting one, because it sits in an intersection of regulation and consumer behaviour. While it is important for consumers to exercise their sovereignty in buying products that are environmentally responsible, many products that use “natural” exfoliants are often priced at a premium. This makes the argument for consumer responsibility moot for a significant proportion of the US. Plus, changing consumer behaviour is a step to mitigate already harmful production practices, practices that are allowed by current standards of regulation. The optics of using microbeads – a product that you feel on your face but never see in the water – also makes the consumer responsibility argument difficult to follow through with; since consumers are distanced from the effects of these beads, shifting behaviour purely through the politics of responsibility may not be very effective. Therefore, it is important to hit industry (ie, producers of microbeads and products containing them) with strict regulation. Federal policy to phase these out will help, but I suspect the “biodegradables” loophole will mean a) these products will continue to be on the shelves and b) more responsible alternatives will continue to be priced at a premium.

 

Brittany

Are there microbead alternatives that producers can put in face wash that produce the same feeling but are biodegradable? I had no idea these little beads didn’t just dissolve in the water!

I wrote my blog on plastic debris in the oceans, so microbeads are a small, yet very important part of this topic. The micro sized particles are going to be the most difficult to clean. They will also be the most difficult to prevent from reaching the ocean as they’re still being manufactured. In this case, market-based strategies might be more successful in curbing microbead production. But, this all starts with more public education. Consumers need to learn about the effects of microbeads before they decide to stop buying them. A regulatory approach may not be as feasible. As you said, there are several loopholes such as the wording of legislation that companies will capitalize on just to continue manufacturing what the public wants.

If micro bead phase out is successful in the near future, what about the other mass of plastic pollutants in the ocean? The micro sized particles are important but there is still a garbage patch of cans, bottles, rings, rope, etc the size of Texas sitting in the Pacific. Don’t get me wrong, phase out of microbeads is a step in the right direction.

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[12] Rochman et al. “Scientific Evidence Supports a Ban on Microbeads.”

[13] Lindsey Blomberg. “Earth Talk.”

[14] Rochman et al. “Scientific Evidence Supports a Ban on Microbeads.”

[15] Rochman et al. “Scientific Evidence Supports a Ban on Microbeads.”

[16] Rochman et al. “Scientific Evidence Supports a Ban on Microbeads.”

[17] “Microbead Ban.”

 

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