Microbead, Macro Problem

by Lila Meretzky

    Even if you didn’t know they had a name, it’s probably safe to assume that we’ve all encountered microbeads before.  These tiny plastic spheres have risen in popularity for their use as exfoliants in toiletries and as aids in laboratories, where they can help model substance flow. Microbeads are everywhere, in our toothpaste, our hand sanitizer, our shampoo, our face wash.  In fact, microbeads have become so ubiquitous that currently they are piling up at the bottom of The Great Lakes, coursing down rivers, and sitting in fields.  Here’s the basic overview of what microbeads are, why they’re harmful, and what we can do to prevent more of them from entering our hydrosphere.

What is a microbead?

    A microbead is a type of microplastic.  Microplastics are small, roughly 5mm in diameter, usually created by the breakdown of larger plastics from exposure to UV rays.  Microbeads are intentionally made at such a small size.  Typically microbeads are made from polyethylene.  They are common in beauty products for their use as an exfoliant, their addition to the consistency of a product, and added visual appeal.  Don’t try and tell me you’ve never marveled at the tiny spheres suspended in a bottle of goopy, scented hand sanitizer.

What’s the damage?

    There are two paths a microbead can follow on its journey to a watershed.  Microbeads are too small to be filtered out of wastewater in treatment plants, so they either flow directly from the plant into lakes and rivers or become lodged in sludge (the byproduct of treatment plants).  This sludge is then used as fertilizer for crops.  Microbeads are then washed away off fields and again into our streams and rivers.  Adding insult to injury, microbeads can become saturated with existing toxins from chemical dumping.  Fish and other marine life can mistake microbeads for eggs, and ingest them.  We then ingest these toxin-carrying microbeads when we eat contaminated fish.  A recent article in the journal Environmental Science and Technology estimates there are about 800 trillion microbeads spread across our oceans, lakes, and rivers.  

How can we combat microbeads?

    Though it seems almost impossible to remove the existing microbeads from our water, there are ways you can help prevent further damage from being done.  This begins with the boycott of products that contain microbeads.  On the website of Beat the Microbead, a campaign protesting the pollutants, you can find lists of products to avoid (http://beatthemicrobead.org/images/pdf/RED%20UNITED%20STATES.pdf), companies that are phasing out the use of microbeads (http://www.beatthemicrobead.org/images/pdf/ORANGE%20UNITED%20STATES.pdf), and products which contain none at all (http://www.beatthemicrobead.org/images/pdf/greenUK.pdf).  If you still want a super-scrubby soap or face wash, opt for products that use natural exfoliants such as ground up nut shells, sugar, and salt.  You can also take it one step further.  Download the Beat the Microbead app, write a letter to state legislators, share articles about microbeads. 

    International progress has already been made to combat microbeads.  Companies like Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal, Colgate, The Body Shop, and Procter & Gamble have announced plans to phase out microbeads from their products.  The state of California has enacted a law banning the sale of microbead products, hoping to completely stop their usage by 2020.  Let’s get involved!

Further reading:

NPR

Progress in New York

EurekaAlert!

Environmental Science and Technology

Beat the Microbead

TIME