Environmental chemist Sherri (Sam) Mason sailed the Great Lakes in 2012 as part of a research team that collected tiny bits of plastic from the waters. In subsequent laboratory analysis, Mason found that many of the pieces are spheres of the same size as the scrubbing beads added to some face washes and toothpastes.
Now, Mason, an associate professor of chemistry at SUNY Fredonia, is seeing lawmakers in two states respond to the research team’s findings.
Legislation recently introduced in California and New York would ban the sale of personal care products containing microplastics as of Jan. 1, 2016. The California bill would also prohibit the sale of general cleaning products with microplastics. New York’s measure, meanwhile, would exempt personal care products containing microbeads that are available by prescription only. Both bills apply to plastic particles that measure 5 mm or less in any direction.
“While microbeads represent only one, albeit very significant, source of plastic in our waters, it is one that needn’t exist,” Mason tells C&EN. “We don’t need consumer products on our shelves that, by design, pollute our waters.”
The fact that plastics don’t degrade easily isn’t the researchers’ only concern. They worry that persistent toxic substances found in the Great Lakes and other waterways may adsorb onto the plastics. And they suspect that small fish and other aquatic animals mistake the tiny plastic spheres for food. The toxics may then get released into the bodies of animals that eat microbeads, entering the food chain.
Manufacturers added the microbeads to personal care products to help clean teeth or skin. Consumers wash the plastic spheres down the drain once they’ve brushed or washed with the products. Because sewage treatment plants aren’t designed to remove these tiny bits of plastic, researchers believe many microbeads end up discharged into rivers or lakes. Further work is under way to determine whether the composition of the tiny plastic balls that researchers have fished out of waterways matches the plastics used to make beads added to products (C&EN, Sept. 16, 2013, page 23).
“The emerging threat of microbead pollution has the potential to undermine the billions of dollars of public and private investment into our water-based economies and negatively impact the progress of Great Lakes restoration,” says Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper. This environmental group supports the New York bill, which also has the backing of the state’s attorney general.
California State Assembly member Richard Bloom (D), sponsor of the legislation in the Golden State, says plastic microbeads aren’t essential to personal care products. In fact, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever have pledged to phase out plastic spheres from their products. Biodegradable alternatives to microbeads in personal care items are already in use. They include shells from walnuts, pecans, and apricot seeds, Bloom says. “There really isn’t a good argument against this law,” he adds.