The Problem with Plastic Microbeads:
The Need for Environmental Self-Control by the Plastic IndustryMicrobeads are plastic spheres that measure 5 millimeters or less and do not dissolve in water. They are used mostly for cleansing in beauty creams as exfoliators, and are rinsed off the skin. They replace many other natural products that have been around for decades, but, because they are plastic, they don’t break down. So, until we figure out how to remove them in our water treatment plants, they simply end up in fresh water supplies and the ocean.
Because they can be brightly colored, they also look like food to many fish and sea life. You guessed it! They end up in our food supply until they finally drift to the bottom of the ocean, years or many decades later. And who knows what they might do down there?
Occasionally the industries use plastic in ways that are unnecessary. Microbeads may be one of those clear-cut cases. They are NOT NEEDED. Other products, that may stick around for too long, might have solid reasons to use them; but microbeads are not one of those.
Plastics are unique because they have characteristics that work better than natural sources. They may be lighter (cars saving gas), stronger, easier and cheaper to shape, bright colored, sterile, inert, or have bending, rigidity or stiffness characteristics that other materials don’t have or are difficult to make. These are all good reasons plastics have changed our world.
But when plastics are used simply as cleansing beads, and are little better than other products, the industry, should strongly consider and self-regulate the use.
Microbeads are a miniscule part of the plastics industry yet they give the whole industry a bad name. They make us look completely irresponsible and then, by association, excellent usages in medicine, fuel savings, and other plastic-only solutions get dragged into the “plastics” quagmire fueled by anti-plastics advocacy groups.
Plastics Today Magazine wrote a balanced article, on the subject of new research, that indicates that 83% of respondents, in a large study around the world, found that source water was contaminated with tiny plastic fibers. There were an average of 4.8 in a 500 ml sample in the US, and 1.9 in Europe. Typical filtering is not removing them from water. In Germany, they were found in all 24 beer brands the country produces! Water? OK. But not in my beer!!
Plastics Today stated the study was a proper scientific study, with no agenda. Naturally, more study is needed as little is really known about the dangers of these microbeads and fibers. For instance, while microbeads are washed down the drain, off hands and faces, clothing dryers may be depositing microfibers into the air.
That said, legislation is already started. The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 (HR-1321) passed the house and senate and was signed into law in Dec. 28, 2015. This limits “rinse-off” cosmetic products for exfoliating functions and toothpaste as of July 1, 2017. However, many other products are not yet regulated. Some consumer companies have started removal of microbeads, but this will not be completed until 2020. California and other states have attacked the problem more widely, but these regulations will typically not be effective until 2020. In July of this year, the new Secretary of the Environment, Michael Grove said that legislation will be introduced this year to ban the sale of microbeads and their manufacture.
We will have to wait to see what the specifics are on the legislation. In the meantime, our water is already slightly contaminated with microbeads. Filtering systems can remove many of the larger beads, however it is not clear if the smaller ones can be easily removed with current filtering systems.
Most sewage plants do not have the micro-filtering capability to filter the beads out due mostly to volume of water effluent. It has been shown that some wild life does eat the microbeads which can harm them simply because they don’t biodegrade and are not always passed through the organism.
Microbeads and fibers may also be chemically active. Reports include the ability for microbead plastic to harbor other chemicals due to the chemistry of the plastics used. These chemicals may be toxic or disrupt the endocrine system, sited by the Society of Conservation Biology. Future studies will need to show other harmful characteristics.
Let’s use plastic where it works best; not for pseudo solutions just because they may be slightly cheaper.
Microdyne believes that plastic products enable many aspects of our standard of living to exist. However, we must all recycle, re-use and properly dispose of plastic products until we can solve the problem of how plastics fit in with nature. It’s part of the price we pay for this wonderful material.
 Plastics Today Magazine, Hot and Cold Running Micro Plastics https://www.plasticstoday.com/sustainability/hot-and-cold-running-micro-plastics/204542228157444
 Telegraph, “Microbeads will be banned this year,” http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2017/07/21/microbeads-will-banned-year-michael-gove-announces-first-speech/
 Society for Conservation Biology, https://conbio.org/images/content_policy/03.24.15_Microbead_Brief_Statement.pdf