Microbeads are in many of today’s most popular personal care items. If one of the product ingredients is “polyethylene” or “polypropylene,” it likely has microbeads. Photo courtesy of Greg Wohlford, Erie Times-News.

Microbeads are in many of today’s most popular personal care items. If one
of the product ingredients is “polyethylene” or “polypropylene,” it likely has microbeads. Photo courtesy of Greg Wohlford, Erie Times-News.

We all have our daily routines; among them brushing our teeth, washing our face and bathing. But some of today’s most popular products may contain ingredients that are harming our freshwater resources.

The culprit: microbeads.

Microbeads are tiny pieces of plastic, ranging from 50-500 microns (or 1/2mm) in diameter used in hundreds of personal care items as exfoliating agents. Because they are so small, they literally slip through the filters at most wastewater treatment plants and get washed into the Great Lakes.

The 5 Gyres Institute estimates a single tube of facial cleanser can contain 330,000 microbeads. Recent research by Professor Sherri Mason at the State University of New York in Fredonia found anywhere from 1,500 to 1.1 million microbeads per square mile in the Great Lakes.

Inland Seas Education Association has been sampling northern Lake Michigan for Dr. Mason since the summer of 2013. “The numbers in our region are consistent with what she is finding in the Great Lakes,” said Inland Seas Executive Director Fred Sitkins.

In addition to not being biodegradable, microbeads absorb pollutants and may pose a danger to aquatic life. “They are about the same size as fish eggs, which means that, essentially, they look like food,” Mason says. “So our concern is they are making their way into the food web.”

Lawmakers in nearly every Great Lakes shoreline state are considering legislation banning the manufacture and sale of products with plastic microbeads.

Illinois became the first state to pass such a ban in June of this year. The law prohibits the manufacture of products with microbeads by the end of 2017 and requires stores to stop selling them by the end of 2019. Legislatures in New York, New Jersey, California and Ohio are considering bans similar to Illinois. Michigan has a bill pending, but it has not yet been brought up for a hearing in committee.

Recent research has found anywhere from 1,500 to 1.1 million microbeads per square mile in the Great Lakes. Photo courtesy of Greg Wohlford, Erie Times-News.

Recent research has found anywhere from 1,500 to 1.1 million microbeads per square mile in the Great Lakes. Photo courtesy of Greg Wohlford, Erie Times-News.

On Oct. 20, the Traverse City City Commission adopted a nonbinding resolution encouraging Traverse City residents to avoid the use of personal care products containing microbeads. The resolution was forwarded on to the State Legislature and Governor Snyder.

According to Commissioner Jim Carruthers, who introduced the resolution, The City of Traverse City is part of the Friends of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, which has encouraged cities around the Great Lakes region to take action against microbeads. “It is my hope more cities and towns will do the same with an end result of banning microbeads from all products throughout Michigan and the Great Lakes watershed,” he said.

“Our Great Lakes and watersheds are one of the world’s most important natural resources and need to be protected in any way we can,” Carruthers continued. “This world has a limited supply of fresh water and one fifth sits out our back door. We would be foolish to not protect it however we can.”

Some companies, such as L’Oreal, Johnson & Johnson, The Body Shop, Colgate-Palmolive and Procter & Gamble have already announced they are phasing out the use of microbeads over the next three to five years and planning to use biodegradable ingredients or natural exfoliates like apricot seeds, jajoba beads or oatmeal.

If you are curious about the products in your home and whether they contain microbeads, check the label. If you see the word “polyethylene” or “polypropylene” in the list of ingredients, it likely has microbeads.

Want to properly dispose of microbeads? The best way is to simply throw the entire product in the trash. However, if you are interested in helping with microbead research, Dr. Mason says people are welcome to package their products (tape lids shut) and send them to her research lab. “We use them in our studies and as visuals when I give presentations,” she says. “Plus it has been very eye-opening to see just how many products
contain microbeads.”

Sherri A. Mason, Ph.D.
SUNY Fredonia
Science Complex 340
Fredonia, NY 14063

Interested in learning just how many mircobeads are in the products you use? Mason suggests conducting your own experiment to filter out the beads from products. Take a normal amount of product and rinse it into a jar with some water, close the lid and shake the mixture to dissolve the soap. Then rinse the sample through a coffee filter to get an idea of just how many plastic particles were going down the drain with each use. The ‘soap’ can be saved for use; the beads should be thrown away.

Consumer awareness about microbeads and their potential to harm the environment and wildlife is critical to reducing their impact. “Even with the banning of these products, it’s up to our behavior and what we purchase to reduce the number of microbeads in the lakes,” Mason said.

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