Thanks to new laws, exfoliating microbeads—tiny grains of plastic in soaps and toothpaste that can't be screened out of wastewater, and now pollute lakes and rivers—are on their way out, but maybe not soon enough for waterways throughout the continent.
Most water treatment plants in the country aren't equipped to filter out objects at the tiny scale of plastic microbeads. For years, that exfoliating plastic grit from face and body soaps, toothpastes, and more flowed down the drain, right through treatment plants and into lakes, rivers and bays. The organization 5 Gyres found concentrations of up to 600,000 microbeads per square kilometer in samples taken from the Great Lakes.
The plastics don't degrade—they accumulate. Small wildlife may mistake these bits for food, but they can't digest the plastic. Mussels and other filter feeders—organisms that act as kidneys for bodies of water—get clogged with microbeads, which can remain in their guts for as long 48 days. The plastics that make up microbeads also attract poisons in the water, including diluted polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBS) and DDT. Microbeads accumulate these toxins and concentrate them at levels up to one million times the level in the water around them.
Further up the food chain, larger animals that eat small fish and invertebrates may inadvertently consume an indigestible meal of microbeads. They ingest all the attached toxins and accumulate all the plastics in their own guts, too. The plastic doesn't go away.
In early June, Illinois became the first state in the country to formally ban microbeads. Several other states have bans in the works, but individual state bans may not be necessary. A nationwide ban may pave the way to phase out microbeads altogether. Major manufacturers that produce microbead products have agreed to cooperate with the bans, and some will voluntarily eliminate microbeads even without a ban.
Unfortunately, between the bans and manufacturers' phase-out timelines, microbead products will still be available until at least 2017, and as late as 2019 in some places. That's another 3-5 years of toxic accumulation in the Great Lakes, and in rivers and bays all over the country. Fortunately, no one has to buy microbead products. Avoid body care products that list polyethylene and polypropylene in the ingredients, as these are the primary plastics used to make microbeads. Even better news, exfoliation is as close (and free) as your own kitchen.
Salt and sugar each offer their own properties for skin care, while being much more gentle on skin than harsh microbeads. Mix two parts salt or sugar with one part oil of your choice— try one of our Boosts, or olive and coconut oils both work well. Use handfuls to scrub your face and body, and wash away the residue with your daily cleanser. (Bathtubs may get slippery if you use the scrub in the shower, so take care getting out!)
For now, there's no way to scrub these plastics from our waterways. But we can keep more from flowing in, starting with our own sinks.
About Erin Gettler
Erin Gettler is a writer, photographer and naturalist living on Long Island, New York. She likes long walks in the woods, but she's too slow for real hiking on account of stopping to look at every little thing. She travels with a sketchbook, and keeps a spare pair of binoculars to share.