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The Microbead Ban: A Good Start, But Where’s the Corporate Accountability?

Microbeads are tiny plastic balls that are used in personal care products. They’re the muscle behind facial scrubs. They give toothpaste its shine. A single cosmetic product can contain up to 300,000 beads, each no larger than a grain of salt. Given their small size and widespread use, microbeads seem harmless enough.

But they’re not.

Microbeads are an environmental hazard that will have far-reaching consequences for the world’s waterways – and any living thing that relies upon those sources for food. Congress passed a new law this week that requires companies to phase out the use of these microbeads in personal care products by 2017. This legislation is a good start. But something more is needed: corporate accountability.

There’s a mess to clean up.

Here’s the breakdown. Microbeads are made of polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) or nylon. These are petroleum-based plastics with controversial health effects when used in personal care products. Once these beads are washed down the drain, they are too small to be filtered out in most sewage treatment plants. Instead, they slip through screens and are flushed directly into rivers, streams, and lakes. Nearly 19 tons of microbeads go down the drain in New York State every year, according to a study quoted in an August 21, 2015 New York Times article. A just-published Environmental Science & Technology study reports that more than 8 trillion microbeads are entering the country’s aquatic habitats daily.

The accumulation of plastics in our waterways is an enormous concern. But the microbeads pose an additional threat: these miniscule balls of plastic tend to attract and absorb other harmful chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. PCBs are linked to damage to the reproductive, immune, endocrine and nervous systems.

And that’s where they enter the aquatic food chain. Fish, birds, and other marine creatures ingest the beads, especially since they resemble fish eggs, causing organ damage and more. These micro pollutants will eventually make their way up the food chain to wildlife and humans.

Another recent study shows that the Great Lakes have very high concentrations of microbeads, especially Lake Erie (46,000 particles per square kilometer) and Lake Ontario (248,000 particles per square kilometer). According to a New York Times article from August 21, 2015, “[w]hen Great Lakes fish are dissected, ‘they are festooned with microbeads,’ said Henry Henderson, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Midwest office, in Chicago. Besides carrying toxins, the beads can cause internal abrasions and can stunt growth of the fish.” Microbeads are adding to the already significant assaults on the largest freshwater system on earth.

Before the federal law went into effect this week, at least nine states banned the use of microbeads in personal care products after 2020 (the ban failed to pass in New York, which borders Lakes Erie and Ontario, although a few individual NY counties have enacted one).

The companies responsible for incorporating these microbeads into personal care products are also starting to act. A number of multinational consumer giants like The Body Shop, L'Oréal, Unilever, Colgate/Palmolive, Procter & Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson have pledged to phase out their use of microbeads. Proctor & Gamble, noting that plastic microbeads “are completely safe for people,” recently acknowledged a “growing preference for us to remove this ingredient,” and eliminated microbeads from some of its toothpastes and cleansers.

This is a good start.

But will these corporate giants also help clean up their share of the microplastic pollution in our waterways? Will they help research the full extent of the health threat? Will they identify who authorized the use of these plastics in our products in the first place? Will they support further R&D for natural alternatives like crushed nuts and shells, salt, charcoal, sand, sugar, pumice or oatmeal?

It’s not enough for these companies to simply say “we’ll stop using that harmful ingredient.” There’s long-term implications to the decisions they made. They used an ingredient that common sense should’ve indicated could be a problem. They read the early reports showing an alarming rise in micropollution. They’ve contaminated our waterways and introduced a harmful agent into the food chain. We hold oil companies accountable for a spill – these personal care manufacturers should be no less accountable.

There’s a moral component to the business we do. The markets we enter. The money we make. The problems we cause.

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