The tiny bits of plastic can slip through most water-treatment systems when they wash down the drain and are becoming a bigger part of the plastic pollution found in oceans and, increasingly the Great Lakes. Some testing has found up to 1.1 million plastic particles per square kilometer in Lake Ontario.
Companies that make products that include polyethylene or polypropylene plastics often include microbeads, and some note it on product labels. Thus some big manufacturers—including Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and L’Oreal—already have said they’re phasing out microbeads and are testing alternatives such as sand and apricot seeds.
About 8 trillion microbeads per day are being emitted into aquatic habitats in the United States, enough to cover more than 300 tennis courts a day, according to new research published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal. The other 99% of microbeads end up in sludge from sewage plants that often is spread over areas of land, and make their way into streams and oceans through runoff.
Besides being a pollutant by definition, the beads “are about the same size as fish eggs, which means that, essentially, they look like food,” explained Sherri Mason, a chemistry professor at the State University of New York, Fredonia, to NPR. “To any organism that lives in the water, they are food. So our concern is that, essentially, they are making their way into the food web.”
And if fish eat microbeads, which can soak up toxins like a sponge, scientists suggest that those chemicals could be passed on to humans and wildlife.
Thus California became the latest state with some form of ban on the sale of products containing plastic microbeads, joining Illinois. Legislation has been considered in New York, Minnesota, Ohio and Michigan as well, and Erie County, Ohio, passed its own ban, which may be mimicked by several New York counties.
U.S. Representative Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) also introduced a federal ban on microbeads in an attempt to avoid a patchwork approach at lower levels of government.
One thing at issue is whether bans should include plastic microbeads that manufacturers say are “biodegradable.” In California, for instance, that type of microbead is banned because environmentalists say there is no truly biodegradable plastic microbead.
Manufacturing CEOs understand that microbead pollution is just one of a number of fronts in growing concern by activists, consumers and politicians about plastic waste in global waters. That means it’s an issue that needs attention if it hasn’t already been attended to.