Plastic Microbeads: Ban The Bead

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Plastic Microbeads 101

What are plastic microbeads?  Microbeads are really tiny plastic particles usually smaller than two millimeters.  The composition of microbeads can vary and often include polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethlyl methacrylate (PMMA) or nylon. Bottom line, it’s all plastic!

What products contain plastic microbeads?  Plastic microbeads are in face soaps, body washes, and even toothpastes. They are sometimes included in “age-defying” makeup (yes, filling in wrinkles with plastic dust!), as well as lip gloss and nail polish. Most wastewater treatment doesn’t filter out microbeads, and they get discharged into waterways.[1]  As a result, micro-plastic particles are found in bays, gulfs and seas worldwide, as well as inland waterways.[2]

Does microbead pollution impact us?  Could the plastic you’re washing your face with end up in your sushi? Crazy, but yes. Fish species that humans harvest for food have been known to eat micro-plastic particles at an alarming rate and the toxins absorbed in those plastics transfer to the fish tissue.[3]

Plastic microbeads absorb persistent organic pollutants (long-lasting toxic chemicals like pesticides, flame retardants, motor oil and more) and other industrial chemicals that move up the food chain when the toxic-coated beads are consumed by fish and other marine organisms. A single microbead can be up to a million times more toxic than the water around it![4]

How do I know if I’m washing my face or brushing my teeth with plastic? Most people have no idea that those little beads are actually bits of plastic! In the United States, The Food And Drug Administration (FDA) requires that if a product contains microbeads the company has to list the ingredients. Not all countries require this, but many producers list their ingredients anyway. If you see any of the following ingredients: polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate or polymethyl methacrylate you’re cleaning up with plastic and being duped into contributing to plastic pollution in the environment—yikes!

What’s happening to put a stop to plastic microbeads? Right now, about 18 states in the US, Canada, Australia, and several countries in Europe are considering bans of products that contain plastic microbeads. This is great!

Unfortunately, many of these bans on microbeads don’t go far enough to protect our health and our shared waters. The industry that is pushing these plastic-filled products has written a bill that leaves loopholes for the microbeads to be replaced with other kinds of plastics and circulated it around the world.  The Story of Stuff Project is leading a coalition of over 100 groups to get these tiny plastic beads out of commerce.

Why can’t you just replace the microbeads with bio-degradable plastic? Biodegradable plastics require an industrial scale composting facility to get the plastic really hot so it can degrade as intended. Since plastic microbeads are designed to wash down the drain, they simply won’t break down (not the mention the myriad other issues with bioplastics).

Why won’t the personal care products industry swap the plastic out for natural substitute?   This question is kind of hard to answer because (surprise!) industry isn’t being real forthcoming about why they want to substitute one kind of plastic for another. What we’ve gathered here at Story of Stuff HQ from talking to these sneaks, is that companies want to keep the plastic in their products because it’s cheap and easy to source. But more importantly, plastic microbeads are smoother than natural alternatives like apricot shells, jojoba beans, and pumice. Why is smoother “better”? Smoother means these cleansers will be less effective at exfoliating, which means you can use them everyday, which means they want you to buy more of their Stuff!

 Photo Credit: Sash Photography. 

[1] Research from New York University for effluent tested at several wastewater facilities demonstrated 80,000 micro-beads per day escaping treatment, per facility

[2] D. Barnes, F. Galgani, R. Thompson, M. Barlaz, Accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 364, 1985-1998 (2009). In 2012, scientists found micro-beads numbering more than 450,000 per square kilometer in parts of the Great Lakes (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025326X13006097). [3] Yukie Mato, Tomohiko Isobe, Hideshige Takada, Haruyuki Kanehiro, Chiyoko Ohtake, and Tsuguchika Kaminuma, Plastic Resin Pellets as a Transport Medium for Toxic Chemicals in the Marine Environment, Environ. Sci. Technol., 2001, 35 (2), pp 318–324 (http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es0010498?journalCode=esthag) [4] Chelsea M. Rochman, Eunha Hoh, Tomofumi Kurobe & Swee J. Teh, Ingested plastic transfers hazardous chemicals to fish and induces hepatic stress, Scientific Reports 3,Article number: 3263 (http://www.nature.com/srep/2013/131121/srep03263/full/srep03263.html)

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