Microbeads in the Ocean

Microbeads in the Ocean, by Julia Hill

The use of plastics is so prevalent in today’s society that the simple act of washing your face can have negative impacts for the environment. The fault, in this instance, lies with microbeads, small spherical pieces of plastic made for exfoliating body scrubs, face washes, and toothpastes. Since being introduced to the market in the 1970s, these bath products now have a global impact and are manufactured by the world’s largest companies such as Revlon and Estée Lauder. Though these plastic beads commonly measure only a millimeter in diameter, their impact is large with microbeads being found in vast numbers across the world’s fresh and salt-water environments.

How microbeads reach our oceans

It all starts with a bathroom drain. Once microbeads are washed down sinks and showers, they are carried to water treatment centers where they make their way through the treatment process and are carried back into the water supply. When heavy rains or sewage overflows occur, these concentrations of microbeads are carried to larger bodies of water such as the Great Lakes, Mississippi River, and ocean. After reaching the ocean, they may concentrate around coastal areas or be carried further to sea by tides and currents.

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Impacts on ecosystems

Studies have shown that once microbeads reach a large body of water, they make their way rapidly up the food chain. Plankton ingest the beads, plankton are then eaten by fish, those same fish are eaten by larger fish, and on and on it goes until those fish, and all the pollutants that come with them, reach our dinner plates. Over time, as exposed to UV rays, the beads degrade causing them to absorb more pollutants and thus become more toxic. The negative effects of these toxins are felt by all creatures that ingest them and have been linked to birth defects and cancer in humans.

What is currently being done and how we can help

In 2015, the United States Congress banned microbeads from consumer products demanding that they no longer be in production after July 2017. And while this is a great win for the environment, not all countries have enacted such restrictions. It is important to be a mindful consumer and not purchase products that contain these materials. If the product is listed as “exfoliating” or “scrubbing” be sure to check if the ingredients list includes things such as Polyethylene, Polypropylene, Polyethylene terephthalate, Polymethyl methacrylate or Nylon. If these ingredients are present, then so are microbeads.