Personal care products like toothpaste, shampoo and soap might be great at scrubbing away dirt, but their ingredients can do the exact opposite for the environment.
The culprits are microbeads, tiny particles made from polyethylene and polypropylene. Commonly used as exfoliants in more than a hundred consumer products, microbeads are added to personal care products to enhance their cleaning abilities. Unfortunately, microbeads can have a serious impact on the environment.
Non-biodegradable and too small for filtration systems to catch, microbeads can travel intact through sewage systems and become diverted into local bodies of water. Their buoyancy keeps them floating on the water’s surface, where they pollute the food chain for birds and other aquatic life.
The 5 Gyres Institute (5gyres.org), a Santa Monica-based environmental group, completed a 2012 study of the effects of microbeads on the wildlife in Lake Erie, finding more than 600,000 per square kilometer.
“Microbeads may seem insignificant, but their small size is what’s the problem,” said 5 Gyres policy director Stiv Wilson. “The beads act as a sponge for toxic pollutants, which fish and other aquatic life can mistake for food.”
Senior scientist David Andrews from the Environmental Working Group, said, “It is really quite concerning that a number of the major cosmetics manufacturers had designed products that released into the environment materials that do not degrade and could accumulate.”
Fortunately, lawmakers in New York and California recently introduced proposed legislation that would outlaw use of microbeads.
On February 11, 2014, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman introduced the Microbead-Free Waters Act, which would prohibit the production, manufacture, distribution and sale of products containing plastic particles less than five millimeters in size. A few days later, on February 13, assemblyman Richard Bloom introduced a similar bill in California.
The chairman of the Assembly’s environmental conservation committee, Robert K. Sweeney, said, “When people learn more about this issue, they will be unwilling to sacrifice water quality just to continue to use products with plastic microbeads.”
Companies like Burt’s Bees already use powdered pecan shells and other alternative non-plastic abrasives. Larger companies, like Colgate-Palmolive, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble, say they have plans to phase out the use of microbeads.
P&G spokesperson Mandy Wagner said, “We are discontinuing our limited use of micro-plastic beads as scrub materials in personal care products as soon as alternatives are qualified. In addition, we have decided not to introduce micro plastic beads into any new product category.”
If New York and California pass this legislation, it could serve as a good example for the rest of the country, says 5 Gyres. “We’re not looking at a one-state strategy,” Stiv said. “This is the alpha, not the omega.”