The environmental impacts of plastic microbeads

In waterways around the world, microscopic bits of plastic are a huge threat to aquatic life. While the round plastic bits in many exfoliating face washes and toothpastes may seem benign, they add up quickly as they wash away down the drain and are eaten by creatures mistaking them for food.

According to 5 Gyres, a nonprofit organization that researched the detrimental effects of microbeads, “A single plastic microbead can be 1 million times more toxic than the water around it.”
To deal with this issue, Congress recently passed a bill banning the production of microbeads smaller than 0.5 mm by the end of 2018.

The U.S. ban of the plastic bits has given some much needed momentum to the cause in other countries as well. In the U.K. Natalie Bennett, the leader of the Green Party has called on Parliament to follow suit according to Jon Stone reporting for the Independent.

How do these little bits of plastic hurt the ecosystem? The tiny beads actually absorb toxins such as “persistent organic pollutants (POPs) such as PCBs and DDT from the marine environment,” according to an article in Environmental Science and Technology.

These chemicals are then ingested by animals. Toxins and nutrients are concentrated as the chemical moves up the food chain, as larger animals dine on smaller ones.

5 Gyres played a huge part in this much needed change. Their research on microbeads in the Great Lakes and direct petitioning of large corporations brought many companies to stop using the beads on their own. It also provided concrete data to back up the need for the ban when it was on the table in Congress.

Being part of the political parties that actually vote on these subjects isn’t the only way to get involved. As the research of 5 Gyres proves, gaining previously unknown data on issues such as this is an important first step for dealing with the problem.

While this is a big step towards one small aspect of plastic pollution, there is more to be done. Other plastics start as larger pieces but break down into small pieces in both fresh and salt water bodies, then disrupt the ecosystem in much the same way as microbeads.

Another huge source of plastic pollution is plastic water bottles. Alexandra Gibbs reported on the negative effects of the plastics in these bottles for CNBC, citing endocrine-disrupting factors that are harmful to humans. Many of these bottles end up in the ocean, being broken down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic that still contain the chemicals they were manufactured with.
Whether microbeads or bits of old water bottles, the toxins in plastics can get passed back into humans through seafood, which ultimately impact our health. With this kind of ecological legislation, it’s important to make sure that there are no loopholes for corporations to get past restrictions. Some states had these types of loopholes in microbead laws enacted before the national bill.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies examined these policies and found loopholes for manufacturers in some of them. Wisconsin’s microbead law, for example, banned non-biodegradable, solid plastic. However, products that are commercially biodegradable at high temperatures can still cause huge problems because many never break down naturally.

There are many alternatives to using these small but harmful beads for exfoliating, such as rice, apricot seeds, walnut shells, sugar and powdered pecan shells. According to the Huffington Post, Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, The Body Shop, L’Oreal and Colgate-Palmolive have already begun the process of eliminating microbeads.

While the passage of this law is a positive step forward in combating plastic pollution, it’s important to keep focused on other issues that contribute to the same problem.
Reducing the use of bottled water is one place to start. Better health can be obtained for both humans and the ecosystems which we depend on by reducing the amount of plastic an individual consumes and by choosing alternatives as well as reusing and recycling.