B.K. Sharma, pictured, and Nancy Holm, researchers at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, talked about how plastic microbeads affect health and the environment.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
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On June 10, Illinois became the first state to ban plastic microbeads from consumer products, effective in 2017. Similar bans are pending in the California and New York legislatures. B.K. Sharma and Nancy Holm, researchers at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, talked about how plastic microbeads affect health and the environment in an interview with News Bureau physical sciences editor Liz Ahlberg.
What are microbeads? What kinds of products contain them?
Microbeads are tiny plastic beads (less than 5 millimeters in diameter), usually made of polyethylene, that are manufactured and used in consumer skin care and beauty products such as toothpaste, face wash and body scrubs. After use, they are rinsed down the drain and immediately discharged into wastewater systems.
Microbeads were patented in the 1970s, but have only been used in consumer products recently. The average consumer is likely to use microplastic-containing products every day, as the majority of facial cleansers now contain microplastics.
What's wrong with microbeads?
When consumers use microbead-containing products to clean their teeth or skin, they go down the drain and enter the wastewater stream. Because of their recent widespread use, huge numbers of these beads are being released into the environment. Analyzing facial cleanser products, the 5 Gyres group estimates that a single product can contain more than 300,000 of these beads! The group found these beads in water samples taken from the Great Lakes in 2012, in some cases numbering more than 80,000 particles per square kilometer.
A major concern with microbeads is that because of their small size, they have a large surface area by volume, so they can accumulate contaminants from the environment. Many of the contaminants that stick to the beads are toxic, such as DDT, PCBs, flame-retardants and other industrial chemicals. Small fish and other aquatic animals can ingest the beads along with their food (phytoplankton). This way, plastic microbeads along with toxic substances enter the food chain and can eventually sicken humans, birds and other animals that feed on these aquatic animals.
How do these beads end up in lakes and rivers? Shouldn't wastewater treatment facilities filter them out?
Water treatment plants cannot filter microbeads out of the wastewater because of the beads' small size. According to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents publicly owned sewage treatment plants, current wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove or breakdown these tiny particles of plastic, and so it is possible for them to be discharged from the treatment plants into receiving streams or rivers. They then make their way to lakes and oceans. Also, some municipal waste treatment plants will occasionally divert wastewater directly into local rivers during heavy rain, which puts microbeads directly into the environment.
Is there any way to clean microbeads out of the environment?
No, they are persistent and will remain in the water column or settle into the bottom of the lake or river or ocean. Small fishes and other aquatic animals will still ingest them, mistaking them for food. Some microplastics will degrade from the UV radiation of sunlight and break down further into smaller particles but still remain in the environment.
What does the Illinois state ban mean?
It means companies will phase out the use of microbeads in their products over the next three years and find natural alternatives to plastic, such as apricot, walnut and pecan shells, oatmeal, and cocoa beans. Companies such as Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, L'Oréal, Procter & Gamble and Uniliver already are taking steps to phase out these plastic microbeads.
Also, consumers can scan the bar code on a product using a smartphone app, "Beat the Microbead" offered by Plastic Soup, and find out if it contains plastic microbeads.