Plastic microbeads are a popular ingredient used in over 100 different personal care products on the market today. Manufacturers often use tiny plastic microbeads in a wide variety of products, including facial scrubs, soaps, shampoos, and even toothpastes. They can range in size from one millimeter to as small as a grain of sand. Researchers estimate that a single product can contain as many as 350,000 plastic microbeads. Once these beads are washed down the drain, they can enter into waterways, where they endanger aquatic wildlife and threaten human health.
Microbeads Pose an Unnecessary Risk to Vital Waterways
Products containing microbeads are designed to be washed down the drain. Microbeads can enter into waterways through sewage overflows or by passing through sewage treatment plants, which are not designed to remove such tiny particles. A recent study by the NYS Attorney General looked at 34 treatment plants across the state, and found that 74% were discharging plastic microbeads. The microbeads then flow into streams, rivers, and lakes, eventually reaching the ocean. A study done in the Great Lakes found as many 1.1 million plastic particles per square kilometer! Studies have confirmed the presence of microbead pollution in other New York waters, including Cayuga Lake, Oneida Lake, the Erie Canal, Mohawk River, Hudson River, and Long Island Sound.
Plastic Microbeads Threaten Wildlife and Human Health
Microbeads can be mistaken for food and consumed by fish and wildlife. Ingesting plastics can result in reductions in food consumption, stunted growth, and starvation. Additionally, microbeads attract and accumulate toxic chemicals present in the water, including Poly-Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), flame retardants (i.e. PCBs), and Bisphenol-A (BPA). Studies show that when fish and aquatic life consume plastic, these chemicals are passed up the food chain to larger fish, wildlife, and ultimately humans. Exposure to these chemicals is linked to a broad range of ailments, ranging from birth defects to cancer.
Switch to Safe Alternatives, Not Harmful "Biodegradable Plastics"
Safe, natural, cost-effective alternatives like cocoa beans and apricot shells can be used as abrasives instead of plastic. While some manufacturers already use these safe alternatives, others are proposing to use supposed biodegradable plastics. Biodegradable plastics are designed to break down with high heat and light—conditions that don't exist in a lake or ocean. There are no current standards for biodegradability of plastic in a marine environment. Biodegradable plastics may contain the same chemical additives and accumulate the same toxins as traditional plastics, which continue to put aquatic life and public health at risk.
Stop Using Products with Plastic Microbeads
While a national ban on plastic microbeads has been signed into law, the ban will not be fully implemented until 2019. In the meantime, consumers can stop buying products with plastic microbeads. You can avoid personal care products with the ingredients "polyethylene" or "polypropylene" and download an app to identify which products contain microbeads before making purchases.
Updated by bsmith 3/1/16