Conservationists fighting the battle against plastic pollution in the ocean won a major battle recently with the passage of the Microbeads Free Waters Act of 2015. Plastic microbeads are those little colorful abrasive lumps that “scrub” the dead skin off your face. They have also been used in toothpaste and shampoos. Passed by Congress and signed by the president in December, the new law bans the use of plastic microbeads in the manufacture of cosmetics and other personal care products. Although the facial scrubs are nice and the microbeads are only as big as a grain of salt, they pose a significant problem for sewage treatment plants, which are largely unable to remove them while treating sewage.
Treatment plants expel the microbeads intact into the ocean, streams, and lakes were they are often mistaken for food by the creatures who live there
The issue is particularly acute for communities like Port Angeles that are situated on bodies of water where the treated sewage is discharged. (This would also include communities such as Victoria, that discharges untreated sewage.) Experts say there are approximately 330,000 microbeads in a single tube of facial scrub.
Magnets for poisons
Extensive research has shown that small bits of plastic, particularly microbeads, are often ingested by fish, turtles, shellfish, seabirds, marine mammals and microscopic marine creatures. Simply having a gut full of plastic can kill a creature, but this stuff is particularly toxic. Plastics are known as lipophilic, meaning they “love oil.” They attract other oil-based pollution in the water, including hazardous man-made chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides (DDT) and flame retardants.
A Japanese study conducted in 2001 (“Plastic Resin Pellets as a Transport Medium for Toxic Chemicals in the Marine Environment”) showed that the surface of a microbead the size of a pinhead can contain up to one million times the concentration of these poisonous substances than the surrounding water.
Not surprisingly, the Japanese study, which sampled 18 shorelines, found that areas with a dense coastal population were the most contaminated with microplastics. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the microplastic pollution contained in a fish from Puget Sound or the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Great Lakes studies
This issue gained wide notice several years ago in the Great Lakes region. In 2012, researchers found up to 17,000 plastic particles per square kilometer in Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior. Twenty percent of that plastic pollution was from microbeads. Researchers examined the gastrointestinal tracts of 20 species of fish from the Great Lakes and found plastic in all of them.
Illinois became the first state to ban the sale of products containing microbeads in 2014. California banned plastic microbeads in October of 2015. A researcher in 2014 found that the Los Angeles River, which empties into the Pacific Ocean, was heavily polluted with plastic microbeads.
What’s for dinner?
There are plenty of humans who don’t give a hoot about microscopic creatures eating plastic junk, or even whales dying with a stomach full of plastic, but the great irony is that these same folks might well be sitting down to a dinner of fish tonight and those toxins might well be on their dinner plate. Plastic doesn’t disappear, no matter how you cook it.
The federal bill bans the manufacture of products containing microbeads beginning in July of 2017. Described by the New York Times as “strangely charmed,” the bill sailed through a Congress usually throttled by bipartisan gridlock and was quickly signed by the President. Proponents estimate that the ban will eliminate the release of up to 8 trillion plastic microbeads into the nation’s marine environment every day.
Meanwhile, folks who love that freshly exfoliated feel on their skin have been searching for biodegradable or at least natural replacements. Some new products use crushed walnut husks, apricot kernels, sand, or ground pumice.