Sometimes product innovation turns out beautifully. Other times, it gets messy and requires a clean up. The story of plastic microbeads in personal care products—the tiny spheres in many body washes and toothpastes that Illinois became the first state to ban last week—is an example of the latter.
Some time in the 1990s, more and more beauty and cosmetics companies realized that microbeads answered a market demand: Women wanted to have glowing, younger-looking skin, but natural exfoliants used in many products—like ground up apricot or walnut shells—irritated their face. Plastic spheres, on the other hand, could slough off dead skin and dirt without being too harsh that a customer wouldn’t want to use it every day. They also could give lotions a creamier, silkier texture and help fill in facial lines. More and more brands began new "gently scrubbing" cleansers, and today, microbeads are ubiquitous on drug store shelves, in hundreds of products.
But all of this innovation also gets washed down the drain, and that’s the problem. Because the spheres are too small to be removed in many wastewater treatment plants, they end up in the lakes, oceans, and other waterways. Instead of decomposing, they just float around, and toxins like pesticides and PCBs that already are in the water can cling to their surfaces. Eventually, the plastics can wind up in the stomachs of birds and even seafood that humans eat, though the extent that this is happening is not known.
"This is an egregious design flaw. It’s basically designing a product that has no easy recovery," says Anna Cummins, executive director of the plastic pollution advocacy group 5 Gyres. In 2012 and 2013, the group worked with SUNY-Fredonia environmental scientist Sherri Mason to capture the extent of the problem in the Great Lakes for the first time: Her samples showed as high as half a million microplastic particles in one square kilometer of water, a concentration higher than the plastic pollution in many ocean samples. It drew a lot of attention.
Things happened quickly from there. Illinois recently became the first U.S. state to require companies to phase microbeads out of their products by 2019, by the time a complete ban is enacted; New York and California are currently considering their own laws. A New Jersey representative just introduced a federal bill in Congress last week, and similar campaigns are happening in Europe.
But what’s surprising many is that companies aren’t actually fighting against taking action. Approached by environmental groups including 5 Gyres in the last three years, many major manufacturers, including L’Oreal, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, and Colgate-Palmolive, quickly agreed to remove microbeads from their products within the next few years. For example, a Johnson & Johnson spokesperson told Co.Exist that it will complete the first phase of product reformulations by the end of next year and a complete phase-out of all plastic microbeads by the end of 2017.
But despite its quick decisions and willingness to pay the costs of changing their products, the industry isn’t actually eager to take the blame for the unsettling amounts of microplastic pollution found in the scientists’ samples and say that many wastewater treatment plants do indeed filter them out. Given that microplastics can come from other "secondary" sources, like the degradation of larger chunks of plastic debris, they say it’s not yet proven that personal care products are the most important contributor to the growing accumulation of microplastics in aquatic and marine environment.
"The science is unsettled when it comes to identifying the various sources of microbeads in the waterways," says Lisa Powers, executive vice president for public affairs for the Personal Care Products Council. "The cosmetics industry recognized an opportunity to eliminate one source of microbeads and decided to proactively remove them from our products."
Either way, the sticking point may be down the road, when it comes to deciding on a replacement for the little beads of plastic. The industry supported the bill in Illinois, but as other states look at legislation, Powers says one thing they will look for "a clear definition of what exactly is being banned so alternatives to plastic microbeads can be developed."
One option being explored is simply switching to biodegradable plastics as a material, similar to the compostable plastic forks and spoons used at some lunch spots. But Cummins says that 5 Gyres opposes that contingency because it’ll mean making the same mistake again. "Bioplastics will have the same impact on the environment," she says. "They are compostable at high temperatures in industrial treatment plants, but won’t degrade in the cold waters of the ocean [or lakes]." She says organic materials should be used, as they are in a number of exfoliating products already.
Kirk Havens, director of the coastal watersheds program at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, who has devised a way to use a bioplastic in fishing traps, says he’s been talking to companies about adapting and testing bioplastic microbeads for use in products. He says they will need to tread carefully.
"You still want to operate on the precautionary principle, trying to understand the uncertainties before you move something forward. Even if you don’t know them all, you can establish a good monitoring program to answer some of these questions as they come up."