Plastic Microbeads: Scrubbing Your Skin, Polluting Your Planet

The next time you reach for that new skin care product, you should probably think again. That fresh face may come with a big price tag. Microbead awareness is about to have its moment, but at the moment, most people aren’t aware that many popular cleaning and skin care products are extremely hazardous, filled with tiny little plastic pieces which pollute the world’s water and may pose significant problems we’re yet to find. Activists, scientists, environmentalists, and public health experts the world over are currently pushing for bans on these deceptively dangerous little balls of plastic. And, so far, their push appears to be working.

What are Plastic Microbeads?

Plastic microbeads are the tiny little spheres of plastics, such as polyethylene and polypropylene, which are found in lots of cleaning produces. Manufacturers sell them to public based on their exfoliating properties; those teeny dots are intended to reach into your pores, scrub out the gunk, and leave your face looking bright and fresh. And, apparently, it works. But there’s a price to pay.

Microbeads and Water

That price is big one. According to a report recently published in Nature, American water habitats are flooded with eight trillion beads every day. Eight. Trillion. Every day. In Lake Ontario, researchers found 1.1 million beads per square mile.  While many of these beads are supposedly caught by water treatment plants, they still make it into the larger world, being sprayed onto crops and eventually trickling into the water system anyways, according to Nature. Then they get eaten by local wildlife. That’s when things get nasty.

Microbeads and Wildlife

Microbeads look like plankton. Plankton is an important source of nutrition for much of the world’s wildlife population. The world’s wildlife, being unaware of what polypropylene is, gobble this plastic caviar by the mouthful. Shrimp and other little creatures eat a particularly large amount of these beads. These animals are, in turn, eaten by larger animals. Which we eat. If we are what we eat, then we get closer every day to become mannequins, it seems. This is a new enough problem that the research is still out, but it can’t be good more massive portions of the American population to be eating polypropylene regularly.  

What’s Being Done

Luckily, environmentalists around North America have been raising the alarm, and lawmakers have been taking notice. In California, lawmakers recently sent a proposal governor Jerry Brown describing a law that would phase out plastic microbeads of a certain size by 2020. In Illinois, the push to get them banned by 2017. A bipartisan bill by Michigan and New Jersey lawmakers is pushing for a 2018 ban. The same thing is happening in Europe.
These laws appear to be receiving popular support. Activists should appreciate the rare ease they are having getting this issue noticed. While the damage being done is serious, and the lawmakers will take a few years to get these bills through, it seems clear that the government is doing the right thing here.    

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