Education is the most powerful weapon for changing the world.
Please take the time to learn the facts about this looming threat to our water resources and how you can be the change we need.
In the last couple years, we’ve seen an increased interest about the issue of plastic microbeads. This page serves as an educational source for Kentuckians, and also highlights our efforts to understand the microbead pollution situation in Kentucky through a Resolution in the Kentucky General Assembly. Please feel free to contact us if you have additional questions, concerns, or insights.
- What are microbeads?
- Why are they bad?
- How do I know if I use products with microbeads?
- What is being done to deal with microbeads?
- What are the alternatives?
- KWA’s microbead initiative
- What can you do?
What are microbeads?
Microbeads are extremely small pieces of synthetic plastic. They range from 5 micrometers to 5 millimeters in diameter, but are typically smaller than 1 millimeter. Microbeads are commonly found in exfoliating facial scrubs, body washes, had soaps, and even in some toothpastes.
Why are they bad?
Microbeads are a problem for three primary reasons.
- When flushed down the drain, they are difficult to remove at wastewater treatment plants. Hundreds of thousands of microbeads make their way into streams and lakes on a daily basis.
- Once in the aquatic environment, they will likely take millennia to biodegrade under natural aquatic or marine conditions. The microbeads will be present in the ecosystem for a very long time, and can travel through and cause havoc on the food chain.
- Possibly most concerning, these beads actually attract, or sorb, other persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic pollutants. When a fish eats a conglomeration of beads which it thinks is food, it ingests a host of other chemicals and pollutants. Then, larger fish eat smaller fish, humans eat the larger fish, and so forth.
To be clear, this isn’t just us here at KWA making up reasons they are a problem. This is all based on legitimate research being undertaken in the U.S. and abroad. Recent research on the Great Lakes has revealed microbeads laying along the bottom of the lakes, ranging in concentrations of 1,500 to 1.7 million per square mile. New York State’s Attorney General released a report last year detailing the threat of microbeads in New York’s aquatic environments. Of course, research has been going on for years related to microplastics in our oceans. This is very clearly as issue that even industry isn’t denying.
Check out this great poster from the 5 Gyres institute on the issue.
How do I know if I use products with microbeads?
Many products with plastic microbeads are marketed for their exfoliating, age-defying, blackhead-clearing abilities. The easiest way to know whether your favorite product has plastic microbeads is to look at the product ingredient list. The following are all chemical terms for synthetic polymers that include microbeads:
- Polylmethyl methacrylate
- Polyethylene terephthalate
If you look at the ingredient list, and see any of those, then toss the entire container in the trash. Don’t squeeze it down the drain. Get rid of it, and then promptly look for an alternative (read on to learn about alternatives). The International Campaign Against Microbeads in Cosmetics (BeatTheMicrobead.org) has also published downloadable PDF lists of products in the U.S. that contain plastic microbeads and of products known to contain no plastic microbeads. Check it out. It’s not the end-all be-all of products with or without, but at least helps.
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What is being done to deal with microbeads?
What began as an effort to reduce the plastic pollution in our oceans has evolved into an additional effort to reduce entirely unnecessary pollution from plastic microbeads. The 5 Gyres Institute, which initially was investigating plastic in the ocean, began to investigate where plastic was originating. Along the way, they discovered the issue of plastic microbeads in health and wellness products. Now, 5 Gyres, the Story of Stuff Project, and others have been attempting to help ban the bead in the U.S. and abroad. Even certain cosmetic brands, like LUSH, have joined the campaign. Over the last several years, eight states have passed legislation that impose deadlines on the manufacturing and retail sales of products with synthetic microbeads included in them. Most recently, California signed a bill into law in October of 2015.
Since 2013, a growing number of health goods brands, like Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, and L’Oreal, along with retailers like Target, have agreed to phase out the use of synthetic microbeads in the manufacturing of their products by certain dates. Most have agreed to do so before the end of 2017, though some have already phased them out, or will phase them out in early 2016.
The Microbead Free Waters Act had been considered in the last two years, but couldn’t enough support to make it out of committee. Then, this November, the House Committee unanimously approved it, followed by approval of the full House of Representatives in December. The Senate is now considering a companion bill. If passed in the Senate, and subsequently signed by the President, the current legislation would direct a three-year phase out of products containing plastic microbeads, beginning with July 1, 2017, though the language used in the bill leaves much to be desired.
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What are the alternatives?
Fortunately, there are alternatives to the use of plastic microbeads. In fact, some companies have been using alternatives for years, and in most cases, they are better for your face. For example, St. Ives facial scrubs uses crushed apricot shells and oatmeal in their products. Sure, it’s slightly more abrasive than the “gentle exfoliation” provided by plastic microbeads – but it’s a natural and biodegradable. There are a host of other alternatives as well, including salt, sugar, pumice, ground rice, ground almonds, walnut shells, pecan shells, bamboo, cocoa beans and more.
Industry knows this. However, the concern is that another “alternative” may take precedence. The current language in the federal legislation and in most state legislation allows for “biodegradable plastics,” which include many newer plant-based plastics. The problem is that many of these newer plastics are not actually biodegradable and are still going to take many centuries to degrade (more on the term biodegradable). This is particularly true if they are sent to a regular landfill instead of a composting facility, which would have the microbial activity to break down the plastics that are actually biodegradable.
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KWA’s Microbead Initiative!
KWA is working with Kentucky Conservation Committee (KCC) to get legislative support for a resolution on microbeads. You might be thinking, why not a ban? Why wouldn’t we want a statewide ban? Well, if the current bill at the federal level moves forward, then we may not need a state-specific ban. However, that doesn’t mean we are out of the woods.
We need research on microbead pollution in our own state, so that we can get a better grasp on the problem here, and the future implications and needs for addressing the problem.
We need to build public awareness and education on the issue, including with our political representatives.
We need to look at this problem as an opportunity for Kentucky to develop a new economic sector. Kentucky is primed to be a supplier of microbead alternatives. We already are native habitat for many nut-bearing trees. Over the last couple years, the state has been pushing to allow hemp to be grown, the seeds of which would seem to be a viable option. What else would be appropriate? What other natural resources do we have that might allow for sustainable production of natural exfoliants? How can we ensure that we protect our water resources, aquatic species, and human health in looking to become a leader in this effort?
KWA, along with our partners, hope that our state legislators are interested and willing to help Kentucky move further into the 21st century with new economic opportunities that also serve to protect our natural resources.
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What can you do?
Call your Senator and Representatives in the Kentucky legislature and encourage them to support our resolution.
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- Murray R. Gregory. Plastic ‘Scrubbers’ in hand cleansers: a further (and minor) source for marine pollution identified. Marine Pollution Bulletin 1996; 32(12):867-871
- Lisa S. Fendall & Mary A. Sewell. Contributing to Marine Pollution by Washing your Face: Microplastics in facial cleansers. Marine Pollution Bulletin 2009; 58:1225-1228
- Cole et. al. Microplastic Ingestion by Zooplankton. Environmental Science & Technology 2013.
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