Have you ever wondered what those tiny little exfoliating specks in your face and body wash were made of? I was always curious as to why some dissolved in my hands while others simply washed away down the drain. Come to find out, those tiny exfoliating particles are microbeads, and they are the most egregious use of plastic products yet!
A single personal care product with these exfoliating specks can contain thousands of these microbeads! They become an environmental issue as soon as they rinse down the drain, and eventually make their way to a wastewater treatment facility. Unfortunately, current systems at treatment plants are not designed to catch these micro-bits of plastic, and what fails to get filtered out is reintroduced to the San Francisco Bay or Pacific Ocean. The microplastics may remain in our local waters or travel great distances, like into the North Pacific Gyre. Plastic microbeads are usually made of polyethylene or polypropylene, which are infamous for their inability to biodegrade, and may persist in the environment for tens if not hundreds of years.
Over time, as these plastics fail to biodegrade, they float around collecting various pollutants from the surrounding water. Toxins like DDT, PCBs, and other chemicals make microbeads exponentially more harmful. Frequently, smaller organisms confuse highly toxic bits of plastic for food. The toxins and plastic continue up the food chain, when larger predators feed on these smaller species. And of course, we are also in danger of ingesting these chemicals when we order our favorite seafood.
So how can you stop using these products with senseless plastic pieces in them? Fortunately, large corporations such as Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, the Body Shop, and L’Oreal, in additional to several others, have already made pledges to stop the development and production of personal care products containing microbeads. They believe that they can still provide consumers products that deliver similar results, but rather use natural alternatives to microbeads such as nut shells and salt crystals, just to name a couple. While this is a great start reducing microplastic pollution, products with microbeads are not set to be discontinued until 2015 or later. In the meantime, checking the product’s ingredient for polyethylene and polypropylene is a great way to avoid microbeads, although let’s be honest, those are difficult terms to remember every time we shop! An app, Beat the Microbead, will help do the work for you, by identifying which products currently on the market do or do not contain beads.
Another helpful way to join the fight is to support legislation that prohibits the sale of cosmetic/beauty products that contain microbeads. Recently, legislation has been introduced in New York and California that will do just this. After California environmental groups and politicians experienced their local waterways being choked by microplastics, they came together to draft AB 1699. Assemblymember Richard Bloom of Santa Monica has introduced the bill. You can voice your support here! Legislation is but one step toward eliminating our outrageous overuse of plastics. So the next time you are purchasing a product, consider the amount of plastic that is used, then consider whether you can live without it or find an alternative.