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The tiny environmental menace lurking in your bathroom

Microbeads threaten marine ecosystems

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October 22nd, 2015
microbeads
microbeads

Every day, tiny plastic particles known as microbeads flow down sink drains into the world’s sewer systems. Made of plastic, most microbeads are between one and five millimeters in size, but some are even smaller. They are not biodegradable and they are too small to be filtered out at wastewater treatment facilities so they ultimately find their way into rivers, lakes, and seas. There, these teeny-tiny menaces impact delicate ecosystems and are absorbed or mistaken for food by sea creatures. Microbeads have been found in algae and in the flesh of fish meant for human consumption. 

Microbeads are not toxic to humans when used topically, but they are not supposed to be consumed. They are found in a wide variety of products, including soap, toothpaste, facial scrub, and body cleanser. They are in drugstore brands like Neutrogena, Olay, and Crest and in high-end department store brands like Dior, Elizabeth Arden, and Laura Mercier. 

Check the ingredients of products you have in your bathroom. You may see polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, polymethyl methacrylate, or nylon in the ingredient list. If so, it’s one of the thousands of microbead-containing products currently for sale. 

Legislation to ban microbeads

A recent report by the office of New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman estimated that 19 tons of microbeads are flowing into that state’s wastewater every year. Microbeads have been found in waterways all over the United States, including the Great Lakes—the largest source of fresh water in the world. Six states have already banned the sale of microbead-containing products and others, including New York, California, and Wisconsin, are considering a ban on the sale of products containing microbeads.  

“Microbeads have proven to be a serious problem as we have found large quantities of them accumulated in Wisconsin’s inland lakes and streams as well as the Great Lakes,” says Wisconsin State Representative Joel Kitchens, who has authored legislation banning the sale of consumer products containing microbeads in his state. “This is an issue that affects us all, so it is good to see legislators on both sides of the aisle coming together in support of this bill and keeping our water clean and protecting our fisheries for generations to come.”

On a national scale, Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Fred Upton, (R-Mich.) have introduced a bipartisan bill known as the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015. 

“These tiny plastic particles that are polluting our environment are found in products specifically designed to be washed down shower drains,” says Pallone. “And many people buying these products are unaware of their damaging effects on the environment. We have a responsibility to put a stop to this unnecessary plastic pollution. By phasing out the use of plastic microbeads and transitioning to nonsynthetic alternatives, we can protect U.S. waters before it’s too late.”

While it’s unlikely the national bill will pass, it won’t take a national law to drastically curtail the use of microbeads. If enough well-populated states are able to effectively ban the sale of products with microbeads, manufacturers will be forced to either create various versions of their products or the more economically viable option—produce one product that can be sold everywhere. 

Companies are phasing out microbeads

Many top cosmetic companies have vowed to phase out the use of microbeads, but that will take time. While some companies like Clarins have already stopped manufacturing products with microbeads, other companies have promised to do so in the future. For example, Proctor & Gamble has said that microbeads will be absent from all their products by 2017. 

Until then, consumers who wish to avoid buying and using products containing microbeads will need to do a lot of label reading. For an up-to-date listing of products that contain microbeads, visit beatthemicrobead.org. They also have a handy downloadable smartphone app that helps you make good choices when out shopping.

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