Banning Microbeads Offers Simple Solution to Protect Our Oceans
An outright ban on the common use of plastic "microbeads" from products that enter wastewater is the best way to protect water quality, wildlife and resources used by people, a group of conservation scientists suggest in a new analysis.
Microbeads are bits of plastic so small that hundreds of them would be needed to cover a single penny. Photo credit: 5Gyres
These microbeads are one part of the microplastic problem in oceans, freshwater lakes and rivers, but are a special concern because in many products they are literally designed to be flushed down the drain. And even at conservative estimates, the collective total of microbeads being produced today is enormous.
In an article just published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, scientists from seven institutions say that nontoxic and biodegradable alternatives exist for microbeads, which are used in hundreds of products as abrasive scrubbers, ranging from face washes to toothpaste. Around the size of a grain of sand, they can provide a gritty texture to products where that is needed.
"We're facing a plastic crisis and don't even know it," said Stephanie Green, the David H. Smith Conservation Research fellow in the College of Science at Oregon State University and co-author of this report.
"Part of this problem can now start with brushing your teeth in the morning," she said. "Contaminants like these microbeads are not something our wastewater treatment plants were built to handle and the overall amount of contamination is huge. The microbeads are very durable."
In this analysis and using extremely conservative methodology, the researchers estimated that 8 trillion microbeads per day are being emitted into aquatic habitats in the U.S.—enough to cover more than 300 tennis courts a day. But the other 99 percent of the microbeads—another 800 trillion—end up in sludge from sewage plants, which is often spread over areas of land. Many of those microbeads can then make their way into streams and oceans through runoff.
Microplastic poses a growing concern in oceans and other aquatic habitat. Photo credit: 5Gyres
"Microbeads are just one of many types of microplastic found in aquatic habitats and in the gut content of wildlife," said Chelsea Rochman, the David H. Smith Conservation Research postdoctoral fellow at the University of California/Davis and lead author on the analysis.
"We've demonstrated in previous studies that microplastic of the same type, size and shape as many microbeads can transfer contaminants to animals and cause toxic effects," Rochman said. "We argue that the scientific evidence regarding microplastic supports legislation calling for a removal of plastic microbeads from personal care products."
Even though microbeads are just one part of the larger concern about plastic debris that end up in oceans and other aquatic habitat, they are also one of the most controllable. With growing awareness of this problem, a number of companies have committed to stop using microbeads in their "rinse off" personal care products and several states have already regulated or banned the products.
The researchers point out in their analysis, however, that some bans have included loopholes using strategic wording. Many microbeads are used in personal care products that are not "rinse off," such as deodorants and cleaners. And some regulations use the term "biodegradable" to specify what products are allowed—but some microbeads can biodegrade just slightly, which may allow their continued use.
If legislation is sought, "new wording should ensure that a material that is persistent, bioaccumulative or toxic is not added to products designed to go down the drain," the researchers wrote in their report.
"The probability of risk from microbead pollution is high, while the solution to this problem is simple," they concluded.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
By Brett Wilkins
One hundred seconds to midnight. That's how close humanity is to the apocalypse, and it's as close as the world has ever been, according to Wednesday's annual announcement from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a group that has been running its "Doomsday Clock" since the early years of the nuclear age in 1947.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
- Scientists Discover New Population of Endangered Blue Whales ... ›
- Endangered Blue Whales Make 'Unprecedented' Comeback to ... ›
- Endangered North Atlantic Right Whale Calves Spotted Off Coast ... ›
- Only 366 Endangered Right Whales Are Alive: New NOAA Report ... ›
By Yoram Vodovotz and Michael Parkinson
The majority of Americans are stressed, sleep-deprived and overweight and suffer from largely preventable lifestyle diseases such as heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. Being overweight or obese contributes to the 50% of adults who suffer high blood pressure, 10% with diabetes and additional 35% with pre-diabetes. And the costs are unaffordable and growing. About 90% of the nearly $4 trillion Americans spend annually for health care in the U.S. is for chronic diseases and mental health conditions. But there are new lifestyle "medicines" that are free that doctors could be prescribing for all their patients.
Taking an unconventional approach to conduct the largest-ever poll on climate change, the United Nations' Development Program and the University of Oxford surveyed 1.2 million people across 50 countries from October to December of 2020 through ads distributed in mobile gaming apps.
- Guardian/Vice Poll Finds Most 2020 Voters Favor Climate Action ... ›
- Climate Change Seen as Top Threat in Global Survey - EcoWatch ›
- The U.S. Has More Climate Deniers Than Any Other Wealthy Nation ... ›
By Tara Lohan
Fall used to be the time when millions of monarch butterflies in North America would journey upwards of 2,000 miles to warmer winter habitat.
A monarch butterfly caterpillar feeds on common milkweed on Poplar Island in Maryland. Photo: Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program, (CC BY-NC 2.0)