Scientists are calling for an outright federal ban on plastic microbeads commonly used in body washes, face scrubs, and toothpaste, explaining that the micro-sized assailants pose an increasingly lethal threat to ocean, freshwater, and river wildlife across the globe.
In a recent report, researchers from seven institutions have estimated that every day, a whopping 808 trillion microbeads are washed down drains in the United States, while some 8 trillion microbeads are dumped into our waterways in effluent released from wastewater treatment plants. That is enough to cover more than 300 tennis courts daily. Once in aquatic environments, these microbeads, which are made of hydrocarbons, absorb pollutants and are often mistaken for fish eggs, zooplankton, or other forms of food by wildlife, which ingest them.
"Microbeads become reservoirs of contaminants, wherever the current is taking them," said Alison Chase, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The plastic microbeads are not necessary in any form, and there is a big question about whether or not these could be potentially passed onto people when we eat seafood."
For Stephanie Green, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University and co-author of the report, microbeads present an unprecedented challenge due to their size. "People are becoming increasingly aware of the problem of persisting plastics in the environment," Green said. "But these are tiny little fragments of plastic and many people are using these products, but are unaware that plastic is involved — it's an out of sight, out of mind problem."
But the state of California has given Green and other scientists reason to believe that the concerns could soon gain traction on a federal level. Earlier this month, state legislators passed a comprehensive ban on microbeads that conservation advocates are calling the strongest legislation yet. While weaker bills have passed in seven other US states, loopholes written into the laws fail to protect aquatic environments from harmful alternatives to microbeads.
"Some of our concerns with the other state bills that have passed is that they allow a loophole for "biodegradable" plastics that we know don't break down in a marine environment," said Anna Cummins, executive director and co-founder of 5 Gyres, an organization working to reduce plastic pollution in the oceans. She celebrated the passage of the California ban as game-changing. Given the size of the California market, she is optimistic that this legislation could force more sweeping changes. "Manufacturers are not not going to be able to create a product for California, and a different product for other states," she added.
And some manufacturers are already responding to what appears to be a shift in demand. Many multinational companies such as Proctor & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, The Body Shop, and IKEA have pledged to stop using microbeads in their personal care products. While authors of the report note the positive impact that such internal policies have had on the industry, they believe that a sweeping, federal ban will be necessary to secure real change in aquatic environments.
"Lots of companies have agreed to take plastic microbeads out of their products, but the reason that people are still pursuing a ban is because some of the alternatives that they are using are not truly biodegradable," said Chelsea Rochman, an ecologist at the University of California, Davis and the lead author of the report. She has been working with legislators in a number of states to pass microbead bans and wouldn't be surprised if federal legislation was prepared to address the issue as early as next year.
Senator Frank Palone from New Jersey introduced the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 earlier this year, which would prohibit the sale or distribution of personal care products containing microbeads. While the bill is awaiting a vote in committee, scientists and conservation organizations continue to push for local solutions.
While it would appear that momentum is building, scientists already have their eye on the next task: microplastics in products other than those used for personal care. Cleaners and polishes that contain microbeads, for example, would fall beyond the scope of the recent California legislation, as they do not qualify as "personal care products."
"Legislation, to be really comprehensive, needs to address that whole range of products," Green said.
As they push for federal action, conservationists and scientists are celebrating the small victory in California that, they believe, could be the first step towards a sea change in microbead regulation.
"This sends a signal that the NGO sector and citizens are watching what's happening and can affect change on the manufacturing level," Cummins said. "This shows the power of the public sector on shifting corporate design. It is a victory on a real level, but it's also a victory on a symbolic level."
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