Environment: Scientists call for ban on plastic microbeads

This image captured by an electron microscope shows polyethylene microbeads widely used in shower gel. Photo courtesy Thompson/Bakir/Plymouth University.
This image captured by an electron microscope shows polyethylene microbeads widely used in shower gel. Photo courtesy Thompson/Bakir/Plymouth University.

8 trillion microbeads per day and counting …

Staff Report

As more and more research shows the impacts of microplastic pollution in a wide range of ecosystems, a team of researchers says the best way to protect water quality and wildlife is an outright ban on the common use of plastic microbeads.

The tiny pellets are used in everyday cosmetic and cleaning products and end up being flushed down drains. Since they’re not captured by wastewater treatment plants, they end up in the environment, either directly in the water or in the sludge from sewage treatment facilities that’s then spread on land.

The new report, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, points out that the collective total of microbeads being produced today is enormous — 8 trillion microbeads per day are being emitted into aquatic habitats in the United States.

“We’re facing a plastic crisis and don’t even know it,” said Stephanie Green, the David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow in the College of Science at Oregon State University, and co-author of this report.

“Part of this problem can now start with brushing your teeth in the morning,” she said. “Contaminants like these microbeads are not something our wastewater treatment plants were built to handle, and the overall amount of contamination is huge. The microbeads are very durable.”

Even though microbeads are just one part of the larger concern about plastic debris that end up in oceans and other aquatic habitat, they are also one of the most controllable. With growing awareness of this problem, a number of companies have committed to stop using microbeads in their “rinse off” personal care products, and several states have already regulated or banned the products.

“We’ve demonstrated in previous studies that microplastic of the same type, size and shape as many microbeads can transfer contaminants to animals and cause toxic effects,” said said Chelsea Rochman, the David H. Smith Conservation Research Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California/Davis. “We argue that the scientific evidence regarding microplastic supports legislation calling for a removal of plastic microbeads from personal care products.”

The study points out that some of the recent bans on plastic microbeads include loopholes in their working, by permitting beads in products that aren’t classified as “rinse-off,” even though those beads also end up in the environment. And some regulations use the term “biodegradable” to specify what products are allowed – but some microbeads can biodegrade just slightly, which may allow their continued use.

If legislation is sought, “new wording should ensure that a material that is persistent, bioaccumulative, or toxic is not added to products designed to go down the drain,” the researchers wrote in their report.

“The probability of risk from microbead pollution is high, while the solution to this problem is simple,” they concluded.

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