Lawmakers at the federal level and in at least three states, including Ohio, have begun efforts to ban microplastics, the tiny particles that give toothpastes, body washes and facial scrubs their abrasive qualities, but may kill birds and fish.
Microbeads have been found to cause internal blockages in fish and birds and can absorb and transport pollutants up the food chain. Microbeads don’t break down naturally and are often too small to be completely removed by wastewater treatment plants so they end up in lakes, rivers and oceans, according to scientists.
A single 4.2 ounce tube of leading facial cleanser studied at the University of Wisconsin-Superior contained 356,000 microbeads. A 1972 document accepted by the United States Patent office described a “novel skin cleaner” that “utilizes plastic synthetic resin scrubber particles therein but which does not clog drains into which it is poured.”
“They’re so small they really look like food to the fish or any organism that lives in the water. They’re small enough to be taken in by planktonical organisms,” said Sherri Mason, professor of chemistry and Environmental Sciences Program coordinator at The State University of New York at Fredonia.
More than 100 products including microbeads — including face, body and foot scrubs — were on American store shelves in March, according to the International Campaign Against Microbeads in Cosmetics.
Most organic materials are broken down with microorganisms, clump together and settle as solids during the treatment plant process, according to Ron Volkerding, director of sanitary engineering for Greene County. That process doesn’t work as easily on bits of polyethylene. He said particles of microplastics may be too light and remain in suspension rather than settling on screens during the treatment process.
“Wastewater treatment plants were never designed to take out the personal care products in micro amounts,” Volkerding said.
Volkerding said some reverse osmosis systems employ membranes with the ability to filter out the tiniest of particles, but they are “extremely expensive” and might also remove the beneficial parts of water like minerals.
Lake Erie study led to action
Mason’s 2012 study documenting microplastics in Lake Erie is considered the scientific catalyst for legislative action to remove the small polyethylene and polypropylene particles from products sold in the United States.
Illinois recently became the first state to ban microbeads, requiring companies to phase products out of inventory by the end of 2019.
Ohio state Sen. Michael Skindell, D-Lakewood, said he was moved to act after seeing Mason’s presentation at a conference. Skindell introduced Senate Bill 304 in March. The bill would ban products containing microbeads and calls for misdemeanor fines of up to $1,000 a day for first-time violators. The Ohio bill has yet to receive a hearing.
U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey, introduced the federal legislation last month to halt the use of microplastics. New York and California are also looking at state bans.
Environmental watchdogs describe the Illinois ban as a qualified victory. One or two states with bans could force wholesale change throughout the retail industry.
“I think the big victory is that Illinois passed a piece of legislation. When you think about companies wanting to sell products in Illinois and the rest of the United States — or in the world — they’re not going to make one product for Illinois and another product for everyone else,” said Kristy Meyer, the Ohio Environmental Council’s managing director for agricultural, health and clean water programs. “They are going to make that product to the specifications of the most stringent regulation.”
Most companies have announced voluntary efforts to remove polyethylene and other plastics out of personal care products, but the long phase-out periods concern some.
“As much as I’m happy that the Illinois ban passed, I was a little sad because in order for them to pass it so quickly they really had to extend the timeline,” Mason said. “When every day you have millions of plastic particles going down the drain you don’t want to wait two extra years. You want this to happen sooner as opposed to later.”
Procter & Gamble won’t add microbeads to new products
A Procter & Gamble spokesman said the company will not introduce microbeads into any new product category and will discontinue the “limited use of micro plastic beads as scrub materials in personal care products as soon as alternatives are qualified.”
Unilever was one of the first companies to pledge to remove microplastics from products, pushed by a discussion of a ban in the Dutch Parliament. The company said its products will be free of microplastics by 2015. Unilever is co-headquartered in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Both Meyer and Mason said other natural, biodegradable alternatives historically used can be reintroduced into products, including oatmeal, sugar, salt, and ground up cocoa bean husks and seeds from apricots, walnuts and grapes.
“There’s no need to use microbeads or microplastics, honestly. Other things can be used,” Meyer said. “Other things have been used for centuries in consumer products.”
By Chris Stewart - Dayton Daily News, Ohio (MCT)
©2014 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)
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