Most people would think that because my livelihood is based in plastics I’d toe the industry line and wax poetic on the economic and social virtues of plastics of all sorts. This is not always the case.
As a producer of durables that are supposed to last a lifetime, I can’t help but view the manufacture and use of many disposables as being questionable. Water bottles are one of those things that immediately come to mind. US consumers buy a staggering 30 billion of these throwaways (only 30% are recycled), something I consider to be environmentally and financially wasteful given that they can make a one-time purchase of a beverage container and get water for almost-free out of their taps. Such nonsensical consumerism contributes to the 32 million tons of plastic waste put into landfills annually.
The latest and greatest threat posed by my peers in the industry concerns something that you can’t see but allegedly makes what (who) you can see that much more attractive – microbeads.
Microbeads are, like the name implies, small particles of plastics. They come in sizes of 5 millimeters and less and are used in a variety of applications, the most popular being the abrasive base of exfoliating personal care products. The beads within facial scrubs, soaps and shampoos are far less than a millimeter in size. After going down your drain, they make it to municipal waste water treatment plants but are so small and buoyant that they are not caught by plants’ filters and make it into our rivers, lakes, and oceans.
Though small in size, their total volume adds up in a hurry as they are a part of our everyday lives. When you think of all those exfoliating products in your household and how pervasive broadcast and print marketing is for those items (and beauty products in general), you realize that we’re not talking about a pittance of pollutants here. A 2012 study conducted by SUNY Fredonia and the 5 Gyres Institute found that microbeads account for half of the plastic found floating on Lake Erie’s surface.
Let’s put that into perspective: Think about how many times you’ve walked the shore of Lakes Erie or Ontario and encountered an unsavory mess onshore and offshore that might include packaging, beverage containers, detergent bottles and tampon applicators. For everything that you do see, there’s just as much plastic, by weight, that you can’t see floating on the surface and stuck amongst the grains of sand on the beach.
Beyond just filling the environment with things that don’t belong, microbeads’ effects on the food chain are scary. They pick up contaminants like PCBs and then are ingested by small fish and invertebrates which are then eaten by larger fish which are in turn eaten by birds, wild mammals, and Man. Everything – and everyone -- at the top of the chain pick up the accumulated poisons.
There was a well-publicized push by New York State to ban microbeads earlier this year. Even the Attorney General contributed to the cause, helping to develop the Microbead-Free Waters Act that would prohibit the production, manufacture, distribution and sale in New York of any beauty product, cosmetic or other personal care product containing plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size.
Despite much fanfare at the bill’s launch, there’s been little movement since. The Assembly bill (8744) introduced by Robert Sweeney, Chair of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee, has been referred to committees and codes and has not yet even garnered a sponsor in the Senate. It’s highly unlikely that a senator will draft that house’s version this year (there’s just over a month left in the session) or next. So, this much-needed piece of legislation will likely go down the drain, just like the beads they hope to regulate.
Four other states have proposed similar bans with Illinois being the only one where passage might happen.
Luckily, bad press and free market adjustments have caused some of the big players to change their offerings, with Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive all planning to phase-out microbeads in the next few years (opting instead for natural abrasives).
But, dozens more lesser-known manufacturers still plan to use them. Hopefully, consumer sentiment will force their hands, too. But then again, they might not…if American consumers are as “green” as we say we are, then why are we willingly going through 30 billion water bottles a year?