Microbeads Were a Terrible Idea And They're Coming Back to Haunt Us

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Every day, 8 trillion microbeads are being emitted into aquatic habitats in the U.S. And that's only 1 percent of the total. 5Gyres, courtesy of Oregon State University

Microbeads—the tiny plastic spheres used as exfoliants in face wash, toothpaste and just about any other beauty products on the shelves—were a really, really bad idea. Our wastewater treatment plants aren’t designed to handle them, they don’t biodegrade and there are now a mind-boggling volume of microbeads winding up in all the wrong places.

A new analysis published this week in the journal Environmental Science and Technology estimates that 8 trillion microbeads are being emitted every day into aquatic habitats in the U.S. That’s enough tiny plastic spheres to cover more than 300 tennis courts, according to the researchers’ calculations. And yet, somehow, that’s only 1 percent of the total microbeads discharged each day.

The other 99 percent of the microbeads wind up in sludge from sewage plants, since the plants have no way to sift out the miniscule bits of plastic from the more biodegradable organic material, i.e. poop. That sewage sludge often gets spread over land, as fertilizer on farms. From there, the microbeads runoff with rain into streams and oceans, effectually taking the long route to aquatic ecosystems and animals’ stomachs, where they may be toxic.

“We've demonstrated in previous studies that microplastic of the same type, size and shape as many microbeads can transfer contaminants to animals and cause toxic effects,” Chelsea Rochman, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California Davis and the lead author on the analysis, said in a statement.

The fix, of course, could be quite simple: Ban the microbeads.

“We argue that the scientific evidence regarding microplastic supports legislation calling for a removal of plastic microbeads from personal care products,” Rochman said.

But even this simple task has proven arduous. While a number of companies have stopped using microbeads in their “rinse off” products, like face wash, they persist in products that technically aren’t “rinse off,” like deodorant. Of course, even deodorant rinses off eventually, posing the exact same problem as other microbead products.

Some states have banned or regulated microbead products, but even these bans often have loopholes, according to the analysis, thanks to wording that specifically allows for “biodegradable” microbeads to be used. But some microbeads biodegrade just slightly. Those bypass regulation while still contributing the problem.

“[N]ew wording should ensure that a material that is persistent, bioaccumulative, or toxic is not added to products designed to go down the drain,” the researchers wrote.