800 Trillion Plastic Microbeads Go Down Drains Every Day

“Scrub away the stank,” promises a television commercial for a popular brand of men’s body wash after flashing a montage of questionable behaviors that would challenge even the most industrial cleaners. However, this cleanser doesn’t just send your dignity down the drain, it also sends microbeads, the tiny bits of plastic that are in myriad personal care products.

liquid-soap
Tiny bits of plastic are found in many personal care products.

Manufacturers use microbeads whenever soaps, toothpastes, face washes, or shavings creams need a bit of grit. Yet despite their utility, researchers in a recently published Environmental Science and Technology article say that banning microbeads from personal care products could help protect the world’s waterways from a growing assault of plastic.

“Municipal wastewater systems were designed for our [bodily] waste and food waste, but they’re not engineered to handle tiny bits of plastics,” said Rebecca Sutton of the San Francisco Estuary institute. Upgrading waste treatment facilities to handle microbead waste would cost billions, and it wouldn’t necessarily be effective.

“Studies of waste treatment facilities outfitted with tertiary treatment particle filters still find microbeads,” said Chelsea Rochman, lead author on the study.

Roughly 8 trillion microbeads, enough to cover more than 300 tennis courts, are dumped into aquatic habitats across the United States daily. Another 800 trillion microbeads end up in sludge from sewage plants, after which it’s frequently spread on land as fertilizer. From there, runoff from rain can bring it to waterways.

“It’s insane that we created a product designed to be litter,” said Blake Kopcho, campaign manager with the nonprofit 5gyres, which works to rid the world’s waterways of plastic waste.

Although microbeads are only a small fraction of the plastic that ends up in the world’s oceans, their environmental impact bothers some scientists because they’re present in products that are designed to be poured down the drain. “This is why so many folks are focused on controlling plastic of the source,” Sutton said. “If we’re using less plastic and disposing of it properly, this won’t be so much of an issue.”

When plastic enters waterways, it attracts persistent pollutants like PCBs, which studies show can cause cancer and harm immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems in animals. PCBs may also affect humans in similar ways.

As DDT and PCBs latch onto microplastics, they become biomagnified up the food chain. Microplastics are frequently eaten by small fish, which are then eaten by bigger fish, which in turn are eaten by top predator fish such as tuna, which in turn are eaten by humans. At each step, pollutants attached to them become more concentrated.

The Environmental Science and Technology brief is not the first to call for a ban of microbeads in personal care products. A 2014 Tulane Environmental Law Journal article also called for a ban with the authors stating that “microbeads release as water pollutants is an inevitable part of their lifestyle.” The authors said that the existence of biodegradable alternatives such as ground-up apricot kernels, crushed walnut shells, and dried coconut make microbeads unnecessary.

Yet industry has resisted their eliminations. Industry-supported microbead bills, such as the one in Illinois that passed in 2014, ban some – but not all – microbeads. Specifically, the one in Illinois bans polyethylene microbeads but allows other for ‘biodegradable’ plastic microbeads to be used. The problem is that “biodegradable is not defined in the legislation,” Kopcho said.

“Most compostable plastic is PLA” said Jenna Jambeck, an associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia. PLA, or polylactic acid, is designed to biodegrade, or break down, in the relatively high heat of industrial composting facilities. “It’s unclear what they would do in a wastewater facility.”

The Personal Care Products Council, which lobbies on behalf of the personal care product industry, did not reply to a request for comment.

Countries ranging Canada to the U.K. are discussing bans, and earlier this month California passed a bill banning the sale of products containing plastic microbeads—even biodegradeable ones. Barring a governmental veto, it likely spells the ends of microbeads in personal care products in the U.S.—California is too large of a market for manufacturers to exclude from products that would otherwise contain microbeads, and special formulations for the state could be cost-prohibitive.

“For most of human history, waste was biodegradable,” Jambeck said. “In the past 40 years, plastic production increased over 640%. It’s a big thing to adjust to culturally. We can’t just put our waste out there anymore and hope it goes away.”