GreenSpace: Momentum grows to phase out plastic microbeads
Just days ago, a research vessel docked in Iceland after a three-week voyage from Bermuda, assessing the North Atlantic's plastic problem.
Every time the crew pulled in the fine-mesh net they used to skim the surface of the water, they found bits of "microplastic," its white fragments standing out from the purplish marine life.
Broadly, microplastic is the stuff you wind up with when larger pieces of plastic degrade and break down over time.
The group behind the voyage, the Santa Monica-based 5 Gyres Institute - named for the planet's large, rotating current systems that have been concentrating trash - has focused on one particular kind of microplastic lately: the plastic microbeads in many face washes, body scrubs and other personal-care products.
It's a subset that seems as unnecessary as it is insidious. These plastic bits travel unscathed down our household drains, through our sewage treatment systems and into our waterways. Their final stop: our oceans.
The microbeads not only have their own additives - plasticizers, dyes and the like. They also act as mini-docking stations for other waterborne pollutants, including pesticides and detergents.
Several years ago, researchers for 5 Gyres and the State University of New York, Fredonia, trawled for microplastics in the Great Lakes and found an average of 43,000 bits per square kilometer, and ten times that near two major cities.
A recent report by New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman estimated that 19 tons of microbeads are washed down the state's drains every year.
But an odd thing happens on the way to the oceans.
Last Monday, a study published in the Proceedings of a National Academy of Sciences study found that much of the plastic that might be expected to be in our oceans - given manufacturing and littering data - isn't.
Indeed, about 99 percent of it is missing. Among the places it might have gone include the bottom of the ocean. Researchers also know some of it winds up frozen in polar ice. And, fish eat it.
When they do, according to a study published last November, the fish show signs of liver toxicity.
And what happens when other fish eat those fish, concentrating the pollutants? What about when we catch the big fish and eat them ourselves?
In April, Illinois enacted legislation to ban microbeads from personal care products.
New York and several other states - not Pennsylvania or New Jersey - are considering similar measures.
Weeks ago, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D., N.J.) introduced an amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, compelling the FDA to phase out plastic microbeads by 2018. It has moved to the Energy and Commerce Committee, which he is a member of, but it has no Republican cosponsors.
"The speed with which the response has happened tells what a terrible design this is," said Anna Cummins, cofounder of 5 Gyres.
Banning microbeads in personal care products won't solve the problem of microplastics by any stretch, but it would lessen or eliminate one known source, advocates say.
The American Chemistry Council, which has a campaign to reduce plastic marine litter, supported the Illinois legislation. The federal bill is still being evaluated, a spokeswoman said.
The Personal Care Products Council said it takes environmental concerns seriously, and that it supported the Illinois bill.
Several companies, including Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Colgate, Unilever and L'Oreal, have announced plans to phase out the beads.
Cummins said advocates are "not entirely satisfied" with the timelines. "That said, with a lot of public education, we can get people to do the right thing long before the companies do."
Consumers can take matters into their own hands by checking product ingredient lists and avoiding those with polyethylene or polypropylene.
Plenty of other companies have already found that jojoba beads and ground apricot kernels work just fine. Burt's Bees uses ground peach stone, almonds, oats and pecans. The organic skin care company, Eminence, uses silica, ground olive seed and rice.
The current battle, Cummins said, is over industry's push to allow microbeads made from biodegradable plastics instead of petroleum or natural gas-based plastics.
But biodegradable plastics break down only in high-heat composting environments, not in the oceans, she said.
No matter their origin, Cummins said, "plastics are plastics."
"GreenSpace," about the environment and health, appears every other week, alternating with Art Carey's "Well Being" column.