The Plastic Microbeads in Your Body Wash Are Fucking up the Great Lakes

By Allison Elkin



Products containing plastic microbeads. Photo via the author.
You’re vigorously scrubbing your face with the newest buzzword-laden exfoliating gel, trying to rid yourself of an incoming breakout. It’s probably something many of us have done, but what you probably didn’t realize about your beauty regimen was that you were actually rubbing little plastic beads all over your face. They’re called microbeads and can be in body wash, hand soap, facial scrubs, and even toothpaste under the ingredient names of polyethylene and polypropylene. If it sounds disgusting that you’re giving yourself a plastic facial, that’s because it is, and not just for you personally—these bits of plastic wash down the drain, creating a catastrophic situation in the water system.

The Great Lakes are a hugely affected by microbeads. You should already know that this fabulous fivesome makes up 20 percent of the world’s freshwater sources. They border eight states, plus they connect to countless rivers that run throughout North America. If you live in Canada, this is of particular concern as our most populous province—Ontario—borders four out of five of them.

“The Great Lakes are our national treasure, even a bi-national treasure,” says Nancy Goucher, the Water Program manager at Environmental Defence, located in Toronto. “We have an obligation, a duty to protect them for future generations.”

And in 2012 and 2013, a study led by Sherri Mason at SUNY (State University of New York) Fredonia and 5 Gyres Institute found a higher concentration of microplastics in one of the bi-national lakes than studies previously done in the ocean. 

“We found more plastics in Lake Erie than any of the oceanic sampling that we’ve done in the last four years totaling some 50,000 miles,” says Anna Cummins, executive director of 5 Gyres Institute in California, an organization battling plastic pollution. “So this one sample in Lake Erie, we found roughly 1,600 particles, and on further examination, we traced many of them back to the microbeads that you find in personal care products.”

One of the microbead ingredients found in personal care products. Photo via 5 Gyres.
Currently, the water in Lake Ontario and Michigan are being surveyed for microbeads, and while they’ve been found to be in all the Great Lakes, data hasn’t been published yet for all of these bodies of water. 

“If you ask me, as a plastic pollution activist, if I would prefer a milk jug in a lake or the equivalent amount of plastic in a milk jug in [plastic] dust in a lake, I would say milk jug every time,” says Stiv Wilson, associate director of 5 Gyres. “[That’s] because by volume, microbeads have a much bigger surface area to absorb these toxins than a milk jug does… that’s what increases their threat.

Once those little blue microbeads from your blackhead-clearing scrub wash down the drain, they enter the water system. They don’t dissolve, but rather, they begin to absorb toxins while they float around from nasty pollutants like pesticides, oil from cars, and flame-retardants.

Plastics repel water and attract fat (which is what many pollutants are attracted to) so they collect and concentrate on the microbeads. And it doesn’t stop there. These plastic beads resemble fish eggs, which many aquatic species feed on. That means they’re entering the food chain.

“Say a small fish eats a bunch of microbeads, then a large fish eats a smaller fish,” Cummins says. “By the time you get to the larger fish that humans consume, they basically have the sum total of the whole contaminants from that whole food chain.”

With scientific proof that bits of plastic don’t belong in personal care products made to go down the drain, you’d think that the companies who put microbeads in their products in the first place would be willing to immediately find natural alternatives—stuff like sea salt, coconut husk, and apricot shells. After all, some companies already make products with these types of ingredients. But those that don’t are fighting it, and ironically enough, they fight dirty.

The state of Illinois, bordering Lake Michigan, already passed legislation to ban future production of products with microbeads. However, it left a major loophole in the bill—an allowance for biodegradable plastics. That’s a major problem because while the name of these plastics might sound like they’re eco-friendly, they won’t break down in the environment of the Great Lakes. They need to be in a very specific type of environment, and they have a completely unreasonable checklist of factors to go through before they start degrading.

“In order for that stuff to biodegrade, what you need is an industrial composting facility,” Wilson says. “That is, you need an environment of moisture, oxygen, 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and it needs to be constantly tilled… There’s no place on earth where you have all those factors at the same time.”

Plastic debris found in the Great Lakes. Photo via 5 Gyres.
Both New York and California have also seen bills in their legislation processes on banning microplastics in personal care products, but there hasn’t been any action in Canada yet. Over the week of August 17, a bill negotiated by 5 Gyres was defeated by one vote in California. And while the state borders an ocean instead of the Great Lakes, legislation there can be a model for the states and Canadian province that do border the lakes.

“Actually I was just talking to the attorney general’s office… they want to allow for biodegradable plastics in the New York legislation,” Mason says. “So basically the attorney general’s office said, ‘We’ll allow that, but you have to verify that they biodegrade and we have to certify the process… The industry kind of turned around and said, ‘Oh, never mind.’ But in Illinois, they are allowing.”

These biodegradable plastics are often marketed as being made out of plant material. But when it comes down to what you make plastic out of—corn, plants, whatever—it’s still the same chemical composition: hydrocarbon. “It doesn’t matter what you make it out of—if you start with plants, or you start with petroleum, or you start with ethylene, or natural gas—it’s still chemically exactly the same thing. So the fact that it’s derived from plants is irrelevant, it’s that the end product is still plastic that does not biodegrade.”

So now that we’ve realized that biodegradable and plant-derived plastic is complete bullshit and that any type of plastic microbead is detrimental to the environment, why are these companies so hell-bent on keeping them in their products? What 5 Gyres has found out is extremely dark and characteristic of corporate greed.

When you look under a microscope at a plastic microbead and then at one made from apricot shell, you would see that the latter was much coarser. When you’re exfoliating your skin, a coarser product is likely going to be more effective at removing dead skin cells. However, if a product is very effective at exfoliating, you might only need to use it once a week instead of every day.

“The whole reason they like plastic microbeads is because they are less effective, and so the consumption of those products [with plastic microbeads] is greater because you use them every day,” Wilson says. “And that’s what they don’t want to lose; that’s what they’re trying to protect. If they use a natural alternative, they’re going to decrease their market share by six out of seven days, or at least I think that’s what they fear.”

Microplastics up-close. Photo via 5 Gyres.
While 5 Gyres has been focusing mainly on state legislation that would ban the harmful microbeads, The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative (GLSLC), a coalition of 114 Canadian and American cities, has been centering in on the companies that make the products. They wrote to 11 of these companies with varied results—some said they were already in the process of phasing them out, while others completely ignored the letters. Colgate-Palmolive agreed to remove them by the end of this year (the earliest stated by any companies), while Proctor & Gamble said 2017. Some, such as L’Oréal and Johnson & Johnson, haven’t even given a date.

So why not? Well, apparently it usually takes two years to reformulate a product, then a company has to get it approved by a government organization. I guess it’s just not enough that mircobeads have been proven to be harmful.

“[The companies] said the biggest problem is working through the Food & Drug Administration regulatory process because it takes some time to get approval for changing the products… None of them said that it was a financial issue,” says David Ullrich, executive director of GLSLC.

Meanwhile, countless of these bits of plastic will continue to wash into the Great Lakes while these already-rich companies drag along and fight the process of reformulating their products with actual natural ingredients that aren’t any kind of plastic.

If you want to stop slathering yourself with plastic right now, your best bet is to switch to products made by companies like Lush and Acure Organics, which use all-natural exfoliants. If you have products with polypropylene or polyethylene, you can send them in to 5 Gyres Institute for use in their future visual demonstrations. And if you’re ever wondering what the fuck else is in the stuff you put on your body, check out this database where you can look up any weird-looking chemical names in your products.



@allison_elkin

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