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Small Plastics with Large Consequences

February 17, 2017 | Jian Rzeszewicz

In recent years, a growing awareness of a nearly invisible threat has caught the public’s attention: microbeads. Hygiene products fly off the shelves, but rarely do consumers stop to think about potential environmental dangers after the product is discarded.

Microbeads, which can be found in body and face scrubs, toothpaste, and makeup products, are tiny, round pieces of plastic that can be as small as a micrometer. Typically, a tube of face scrub contains nearly 300,000 microbeads. When rinsed off, they’re discarded into rivers, lakes, streams, and ocean outlets becoming a health risk after entering the food chain. Fish and shellfish confuse the plastic particles for food, inhibiting proper growth and development. Even humans face the possibility of consuming microbeads through seafood. Cancer-causing chemical compounds can build up on the microbeads’ surface and could be present upon ingestion. Although risks of microbeads affecting humans through the food chain have not been confirmed, investigations are underway to provide an answer.

In the meantime, a wave of support to ban products with microbeads has arisen, including President Obama’s recent approval to ban sales and distribution of wash-off products with microbeads in 2015. Canada plans eliminate microbeads from certain products, effective summer of 2018 and most recently, the UK announced that microbeads in cosmetics will be banned by the end of this year. Countries considering the ban include South Korea, Taiwan, Ireland and India. Australia began implementing a voluntary ban last year, but could potentially issue a total ban if not enough companies eliminate them of their own accord.

Microbead bans are not without skepticism, especially around its selective attention to cosmetics and rinse-off products. Detergents and makeup left on the skin also use microbeads, so an inclusive ban would be impossible with the way current laws are written. Furthermore, the FDA guidelines do not require all ingredients to be disclosed, so microbeads used and sold through smaller businesses fall under the radar.

Biodegradables alternatives such as rice, apricot seeds and walnut shells could potentially be used as substitutes to microbeads. Those who wish to cut microbeads from their purchases should scan listed ingredients for words synonymous to microbeads: polyethylene, polypropylene, polymethyl methacrylate, polytetrafluoroethylene, and polyethylene terephthalate, to name a few.

Eight trillion microbeads are dumped into waterways in the United States daily. The cascading effect of an eventual global ban is a strong and encouraging start to a long-term solution.