Conservation & Science

Ocean action: We’re pushing to ban plastic microbeads

When you brush your teeth or wash your face, it’s likely you’re also washing thousands of microbeads—plastic spheres 5 millimeters or smaller—down the drain. Those microbeads are too small to be captured by wastewater treatment plants, so they end up in the ocean. Microbeads are so ubiquitous that estimates suggest billions of them wash down the drain every day.

Few people are aware of the volume of plastic scrubbers in their personal care products, or what effects they’re having on ocean health. While some products like facial scrubs advertise the presence of microbeads by giving them contrasting colors, others don’t make them so obvious. Unless the beads are big enough to feel, one way consumers can check if their products are plastic-free is by scrutinizing the ingredients list for terms like “polyethylene” and “polypropylene.”

Microbeads in care products-5gyresNow there’s a push to ban plastic microbeads from personal care products. Several states have already passed bills to ban or significantly limit their use. Many other states, including California, are currently taking up such bills. California Assembly Bill 888 has passed the state Assembly and is now being considered by state Senate committees. If enacted, it will arguably be the strongest law passed to date against microbead pollution in the United States. Under its provisions, the bill would ban the sale of any non-prescription rinse-off product containing microbeads as of January 1, 2020. The Aquarium has joined the effort to advance this bill.

“We submitted a letter of support for the bill and we’ve engaged with the coalition that’s working to get the bill passed,” says Letise LaFeir, the Aquarium’s California Ocean Policy Manager.

The bill has opposition—mainly from the industries that manufacture products containing microbeads. They argue that 2020 is too soon a deadline for them to research, develop and implement alternatives to plastic microbeads that will meet California’s strict biodegradability standards.

Micro plastic“Most biodegradability tests are done in high-pressure, high-heat environments,” Letise says. “But even in landfills, products that are labeled biodegradable may not break down because they’re not under the right conditions. So we’re especially concerned about how long these products will last in the colder marine environment.”

There may be a solution: switching to non-plastic alternatives. Several products already on the shelves contain microbead alternatives like walnut shells, cocoa beans and sugar crystals. Still, companies insist that their customers strongly prefer the look and feel of microbeads to these more natural ingredients, so the industry thinks it needs to cook up a more biodegradable plastic substitute.

Letise said that the most important thing to do right now is to stop the flow of microbeads into the ocean. Since they’re so small, they can’t be removed from the water in conventional sewage treatment plants. Once in the ocean, or freshwater bodies like the Great Lakes, research has shown that toxic chemicals in the water adhere to microbeads like magnets. Fish can consume chemical-laced microbeads along with plankton and fish eggs, passing them up the food web—and ultimately onto our dinner plates.

Due to the many threats posed by plastic pollution in the ocean, tackling the issue is one of the Aquarium’s major conservation action priorities—via our exhibits, outreach and education programs, and policy initiatives. In October, we’ll host our annual Ocean Plastic Pollution Summit for California teachers and their students. It’s an initiative supported by one of our strongest allies in the fight, musician and ocean conservation champion Jack Johnson. Registration is open now for the Summit.

The Aquarium’s many efforts are aimed at spreading awareness—and inspiring action—to address the growing problem of ocean plastic pollution.

— by Cynthia McKelvey

Photos courtesy 5 Gyres

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