By: Nancy Wallace
This month, Illinois became the first state to ban the production, manufacture, or sale of personal care products containing plastic microbeads. The industry-supported ban comes after a study released last year by researchers at 5 Gyres and SUNY Fredonia showed high levels of microplastics, including the beads, in the Great Lakes.
State legislatures in California, Minnesota, New York, and Ohio are considering bans or other legislation on plastic microbeads, citing concern over how these plastic pieces will impact fish and other wildlife. Some major manufacturers, including Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, and L’Oreal have also pledged to phase plastic microbeads out of their products and search for alternatives.
Many face washes and body scrubs contain tiny plastic spheres – sometimes labeled “microscrubbers” – meant to exfoliate skin. Take a look at the ingredient lists on personal care bottles; if they say polyethylene and polypropylene, then there is plastic in them. Once rinsed off, the beads go down the drain. In most cases, they are so tiny that they slip through wastewater treatment plants and into nearby waterways.
When microbeads enter the marine environment or Great Lakes, they are considered a form of “microplastic” marine debris. Microplastics come from several sources. They are sometimes manufactured small, such as microbeads or resin pellets used in plastic manufacturing. Or, they are shards of what used to be larger plastic items, such as bottles or containers that found their way into the environment. NOAA defines microplastics as any plastic smaller than 5 mm in size.
Plastics never really go away when they’re in rivers, oceans, or lakes. Instead, they can last decades, fragmenting over and over again into small pieces. There’s an unknown amount of microplastics in our environment, but they are turning up everywhere, even in Arctic sea ice.
The big deal is that some species of marine life mistake plastic for food, especially bite-sized microplastics. Scientists across the world, including here at NOAA, are working to better understand exactly how microplastics and the chemicals in them impact wildlife once they’re ingested – or if the chemicals transfer through the food web.
Removing unnecessary plastic microbeads in cosmetics won’t take care of the microplastics problem in the ocean and Great Lakes entirely, but it eliminates one known source. The recent movement in Illinois is a great example of how industry, government, non-profits, and academia can come together to implement action. As we continue finding solutions to marine debris, let’s remember that these kinds of collaborative efforts are critical to our success.