Microbeads are a perfect storm of ecological nightmares. Ubiquitous and widespread, they are also largely invisible in their initial impact. If you've bought soap, cosmetics, or body wash from a supermarket, you're probably already familiar with them. Tiny plastic particles, they are very commonly added to cosmetics in an effort to market them as exfoliates. Like many engineered solutions though, microbeads come with their own set of unintended consequences.
The simple fact of the matter is that these tiny plastic beads don't dissolve when you wash with them. They go down your drain, and eventually make their way into bodies of water, where they are not only hard to detect, but also pose a grave environmental risk to fish and other fauna. Microbeads don't biodegrade, so they build up in waterways, and can absorb toxins. A study of the Great Lakes, undertaken in 2013, disturbingly found that the United States' largest bodies of water were virtually full of the plastic particles. In several samples, 600,000 microbeads were confirmed per square kilometer.
Environmental groups have warned that trillions of microbeads are entering the United State's water supply, and water treatment facilities are ill-equipped to deal with them. Some groups have taken to lobbying manufacturers to replace synthetic microbeads with organic alternatives, such as pumice or walnut husks. Surprisingly, manufacturers have willingly embraced the idea. Major companies such as L'Oreal and Johnson & Johnson already have pages on their websites that explain their plans to remove synthetic microbeads from their products.
Lawmakers have also taken steps to curb microbead usage, with Illinois recently becoming the first state to explicitly ban the sale and manufacture of microbeads. Similar legislation is being considered in at least four other states, including New York and California.
So the next time you pick up body wash in the grocery store, remember to ask yourself: What kind of water do you want to be in?