By Caitlin Rydinksy,
A bill approved last week by the Illinois Senate that would eliminate plastic microbeads found in hygiene products could become a national model for states looking to phase out the material.
Microbeads are small plastic particles, made of polyethylene or polypropylene, found in items such as body and facial scrubs and some toothpastes. After use, they are washed down the drain and released into waterways. The beads are so small that they make it through the filtration process at water treatment plants.
They cause harm when fish and other aquatic life confuse them with food because of the resemblance in color and size to the microbes that they eat. Because they are made of plastic, which is not biodegradable, the particles do not dissolve once they are released into the environment. They float through the water or sink to the bottom once they have absorbed surrounding pollutants.
Researchers have found them in waterways, oceans and, overwhelmingly, the Great Lakes. The 5 Gyres Institute, a group that studies the global effect of plastic pollutants, found beads within the lakes. Early testing, which looked at Lake Superior, Lake Huron and Lake Erie, shows Lake Erie had more than two times the amount sampled within some areas of the ocean.
The results of the study have spurred manufacturers to act. “Most of the major manufacturers that were presented with the research of the high abundance of these particles in the Great Lakes surface water responded by voluntarily phasing out plastic particles in their products and looking for alternative formulations,” said Olga Lyandres, research manager of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, a Chicago-based environmental organization. The alliance worked with The 5 Gyres Institute on the lakes study.
“Plastic microbeads are used in personal care cleansing products because of their exfoliating properties and excellent safety profile,” said the Personal Care Products Council in a prepared statement. “However, our industry shares a common interest with other stakeholders in protecting the environment, and we take questions regarding the presence of plastic microbeads in our waterways very seriously. While we believe plastic microbeads in personal care cleansing products represent a very small contributor to the overall plastic found in the aquatic environment, our industry is demonstrating leadership on this issue by publicly announcing plans to phase out the use of these ingredients.”
The study found remnants of other plastics including pieces of plastic bags. But the amount of microbeads and the fact that they are easily identifiable allowed researchers to point to a specific cause of pollution and request that companies transition to more environmentally friendly substitutes.
Although many high profile companies, such as Johnson & Johnson and Unilever, have already started phasing out production of the beads, The Alliance for the Great Lakes is lobbying for Senate Bill 2727 to hold the companies to that promise.
States surrounding the Great Lakes and some coastal states, such as New York and California, have also considered bans. Those who negotiated SB 2727 say it could serve as an example for those states because it gives the industry years to find a substitute for the beads and allows retailers to continue selling their current inventory. Scrubbing products that do not contain microbeads have various other abrasive materials, such as silica, ground nutshells, rice, sugar or salt. SB 2727 calls for a ban on products containing the beads to begin in 2017 and a ban on the sale of such products by 2018.
Mark Denzler with the Illinois Manufacturers Association said a phase out takes time. “You have to change the line production and get additional products for what you’re going to use,” he says. “So, really the debates are set on timelines when manufacturers have to stop producing it, and retailers have to stop selling it. That negotiation was sort of easy to accomplish.”
Chicago Democratic Sen. Heather Steans, who sponsored the bill, said that cooperation from the manufacturers has helped the measure gain broad support. The measure passed with no opposition in the Senate. “We phased it in to make it so the companies have time to handle it appropriately, but they really worked with us and we got to an agreement. So I think we probably pass it [in the House] as it got out, unanimously, here,” she said.
Results from the testing of Lake Michigan and Lake Ontario waters will be released later this month, but those close to the research predict the findings will be similar to the other lakes. While the industry, environmentalists and lawmakers are working together to phase out the beads, those already in the waters cannot be removed because of their small size. “Well, once they are in the water, they are there to stay,” said Lyandres. “They are very difficult to capture once they are released.”