Environment

Microbeads In Soaps Facing Bans Due To Great Lakes Pollution

June 19, 2014 | by Lisa Winter

Photo credit: 5 Gyres Institute

What puts the ‘scrub’ in facial scrub? Typically, they are tiny plastic microbeads, ranging in size from 0.0004 to 1.24 millimeters. In December 2013, a paper was published in Marine Pollution Bulletin and described how the Great Lakes were choking from this plastic pollution. While Lake Michigan had an average of 17,000 microbeads per square kilometer, some areas of Lake Ontario had as many as 1.1 million beads per square kilometer. How much harm can something so tiny really do? As it turns out, a whole hell of a lot.

Washing your face with something like Clean & Clear’s facial scrub can put as many as 330,000 microbeads down the drain per bottle, according to Gizmodo. These particles are much too small to be filtered out by wastewater facilities, so they are just passed along with the cleaned water, which eventually makes its way to lakes. These tiny particles coat the floor of the lake, choking out plant life. Additionally, some creatures mistake them for fish eggs and ingest them. Unable to digest the particles, their gut becomes filled with the plastic until they ultimately starve to death. The small fish who eat the plastic are eaten by progressively larger fish, all of whom begin to accumulate the plastic.

Unfortunately, the plastic alone isn’t the only problem. Plastic can act like a sponge for pollutants like motor oils and pesticides. These toxins could work their way into bloodstreams all the way up the food chain, even into the fish eaten by humans. 

There may not be too much that can be done about the plastic that is already in the lakes. The microbeads are similar in size to zooplankton, so any efforts to get rid of the plastic would also devastate the base of the food chain. Environmentalists chose to focus on preventing additional plastic from entering the water, and many states began discussing bills that would ban the sale and distribution of soaps, toothpastes, and other products containing microbeads. They expected a long fight, but manufacturers put up little resistance in the measure and were quick to agree to deadlines when they would be phased out. 

Unilever, which owns soap companies including St. Ives, Pond’s, Noxema, Caress, Dove, Axe, and Suave, has announced plans to completely phase out microbeads from their products by 2015. Though a spokesperson for L’Oreal stated microbeads have "no proven environmental toxicity,” the company agreed to begin phasing them out anyway. Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson have all agreed to end their use of microbeads. This isn’t entirely altruistic; there are many viable alternatives to plastic microbeads, making it easier to switch than put up a fight.

Compliance from top manufacturers is making it easier on states that have introduced anti-microbead legislation, which would prohibit the sale and distribution of products that have that plastic. Illinois has just passed legislation that requires microbeads to be phased out by 2019. New York’s state Assembly unanimously passed a similar bill that would ban microbeads in 2016, though it is awaiting approval from the state senate. California’s bill would also prohibit biodegradable microbeads, which is causing more resistance from manufacturers. 

Not every facial scrub uses plastic microbeads; many higher end cosmetics use sand, sugar, salts, or diamond crystals. If you currently use a facial scrub containing these plastic particles, think about switching brands until the changes have taken effect. A simple scrub can be made by adding sugar to your regular daily cleanser or by making a paste by mixing coconut oil or honey with lemon juice and sugar.

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