Plastic microbeads are wreaking havoc among the Great Lakes, and alongside municipalities here in the United States, Canadian authorities are helping to lead the way when it comes to banning these near-microscopic additives from North American waterways.
Microbeads are the tiny plastic particles that are often found in personal care products, where they are utilized for exfoliant purposes. Usually measuring around 1 millimeter or less in diameter, microbeads resemble nothing quite so much as plastic sand, yet their synthetic composition prevents these tiny particles from breaking down when introduced into the natural ecosystem. Microbeads may go down your drain at the end of your shower or after you've brushed your teeth, but they most certainly do not go away.
Due to their small size, most microbeads can't be captured by current water treatment systems. An absolutely staggering number of the tiny plastic particles are therefore making their way through municipal water networks and into our waterways, where they do far more damage than most people realize. Plastic microbeads act as tiny sponges, absorbing toxins throughout their life cycle. When they reach populated waterways, some of these beads are then consumed by fish, which are in turn caught and eaten by humans. Not only the beads themselves, but also the toxins that they carry, slowly build up in biological systems over time.
The Great Lakes represent a "Patient Zero" situation for plastic microbead infection. A recent study, conducted in 2014 by the 5 Gyres Institute
, found that an astonishing 43,000 microplastic particles were present in every square kilometer of tested lake water. When samples were taken in proximity to major cities, that number jumped as high as 466,000. Billions of microbeads are making their way into rivers and lakes each day across the country, and they quite simply don't degrade, meaning they slowly accrue over time.
Municipalities and companies alike are beginning to stage a backlash against microplastic beads, which are hardly necessary in many of the products in which they are found. Recently, Canada has taken bold steps to help lead the way in combating the issue, as researchers with Environment Canada
, a department of the national government, have recommended that microbeads be listed as a toxic substance. This move comes after the review of over 130 scientific papers, and would effectively give the Canadian government the right to regulate the import and domestic manufacture of microplastic particles. Though Canada's government faces an impending election, the measure has strong bipartisan support, meaning microbeads will be addressed no matter which party prevails at the polls.
While Canada is helping to lead the way, the United States is deeply involved in the issue as well, with legislation introduced last year at the federal level that would ban the sale of microbeads
by a target date of 2018. Introduced to the House of Representatives by Congressman Frank Pallone, the proposed legislation came just a week after Illinois made history by passing the world's first ban on microbeads, as we previously discussed
here on the Green Conscience Blog. That legislation aimed to remove plastic microbeads from cosmetics and personal care products by 2017, banning both the manufacture and sale of merchandise containing them from the state.
Even if the use of microbeads is curbed and they are replaced with safer, biodegradable alternatives, the reality is that the problem won't completely go away overnight. Our waterways are already heavily contaminated with microplastics, and the amount of time required for these particulates to break down is simply too long, meaning they will continue to be a danger to marine life until cleaned up. By corollary, this means they will also continue to negatively impact human health as well. Banning the manufacture and use of microplastics is a massive step in the right direction, but it may likely be years before plastic microbeads are no longer an issue facing the sustainability community.