By Roberta Attanasio, IEAM Blog Editor
Microbeads—tiny, plastic beads added to face scrubs, soap, toothpaste, and the like—cause environmental damage at the macro scale. Their function is to provide a bit of grit, but they end up in lakes, rivers, and other aquatic habitats. Once there, microbeads are mistaken for food and gobbled up by zooplankton, thus becoming incorporated into the aquatic food chain. Small fish, and other organisms that swallow the contaminated zooplankton, are eaten by bigger fish and eventually, microbeads make their way to the top of the food chain, reaching other wildlife and even humans. However, there is more to this story.
In aquatic environments, microbeads soak up environmental pollutants, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Zooplankton that ingest microbeads can accumulate PCBs and PAHs (through adsorption), which biomagnify (become more concentrated) up the food chain. These pollutants are endocrine disruptors and can damage immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems in both wildlife and humans.
There is good news, though. Thanks to the Microbead-Free Waters Act approved a week ago by the House of Representatives, the dispersal of microbeads in the environment will likely become, within the next two years, a thing of the past. The bill, which will now go to the Senate for approval, would phase out microbeads from products in the US starting July 1, 2017.
Congressman Frank Pallone, who introduced the bill earlier this year with Committee Chairman Fred Upton, said: “Most people who buy personal care products that contain microbeads are unaware that these tiny bits of plastic seep into waterways, threatening the environment and ultimately our health. Our bill is a bipartisan and common-sense solution. It is our responsibility to implement a nationwide ban on plastic microbeads, and spur a transition to non-synthetic alternatives.”
But how do microbeads end up in waterways? When exfoliating compounds in cosmetics and hygiene products are rinsed off, they go down the drain—and whatever goes down the drain, ends up in waterways. Because of the widespread use of products containing microbeads1, large amounts of these plastic fragments are routinely discarded into wastewater. According to a 2014 report cited by The New York Times, nearly 19 tons of microbeads go down the drain in New York State every year.
Additionally, most wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to filter particles as fine as microbeads, which range between 0.5 micrometers and 1 millimeter in size. Rebecca Sutton of the San Francisco Estuary Institute told PBS, “Municipal wastewater systems were designed for our [bodily] waste and food waste, but they’re not engineered to handle tiny bits of plastics. Upgrading waste treatment facilities to handle microbead waste would cost billions, and it wouldn’t necessarily be effective.”
In September 2015, a team of scientists estimated that 8 trillion microbeads per day are being released into aquatic habitats in the United States, and that another 800 trillion end up in sludge from sewage plants, which is often spread over areas of land. Many of those microbeads can then make their way into streams and oceans through runoff. The scientists conclude that: “The probability of risk from microbead pollution is high while the solution to this problem is simple. Banning microbeads from products that enter wastewater will ultimately protect water quality, wildlife, and resources used by people.”
The Microbead-Free Waters Act is now providing the solution. The federal legislation will follow action taken by several states. Last month, California finalized a bill that phases out microbeads from 2020. However, it was Illinois to first ban the production, manufacture, or sale of personal care products containing microbeads, especially because of concerns raised in 2013 about the heavy microbead pollution in the Great Lakes, the largest freshwater ecosystem on earth. A recent study shows that in certain areas of the Great Lakes, densities of floating plastics are as high as those reported for areas of litter accumulation within oceanic gyres.
After the House passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act, Congressman Upton said: “These microbeads are tiny plastic, but big time pollution. As someone who grew up on Lake Michigan and represents a large chunk of Michigan coastline, I understand firsthand how important it is to maintain the beauty and integrity of our Great Lakes. They may be smaller than a pinhead, but once they’ve been flushed down the drain is where the problem starts.”
In response to the impending ban and growing concern from the general public, several companies, including large multinationals, have begun replacing microbeads with natural, biodegradable alternatives such as rice, apricot seeds, walnut shells, powdered pecan shells, and bamboo. Will these alternatives be not only natural and biodegradable, but also sustainably sourced? As more and more consumers increase their environmental awareness and push for change, hygiene and beauty giants may finally respond to public pressure and follow the footsteps of the food industry by acknowledging the damage done in the past, while keeping a keen eye on life cycle assessment programs.
1. Do your personal care products contain microbeads? Find lists of products by country here