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Micro plastics, major problem

Micro beads, used in products including face cleansers and toothpaste, cannot be filtered from waste water.
Last modified: 17 Jun 2014 21:54
Unilever is aiming for 2015, Colgate-Palmolive in 2014, Procter&Gamble vowed to be free by 2017 [AP]

If you have used everyday products such as Crest toothpaste or Neutrogena facial cleanser, you will be shocked to learn that they are bad for the environment.

The problem is the tiny pieces of plastic, better known as micro beads, that are used as abrasives in countless personal care products. They are so small - about the size of a pinhead  - that they cannot be filtered from waste water. They go down the drain and end up right back in our lakes and streams.

I found out about the problem when New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced that he and other public officials were behind legislation to ban micro beads. Their action is based on the findings of Sherri Mason, a researcher at the State University of New York at Fredonia, who worked with an organisation called Five Gyres.

Sherri was one of the first to look for plastics in the Great Lakes of North America – and the levels she found were alarming.

The highest concentration was found in Lake Ontario, with counts of up to 1.1 million plastic particles per square kilometre.

When I visited Mason in Western New York last week, Illinois had just become the first state to ban micro beads in products. She wasn't as happy about it as you might think, since the ban doesn't take effect until 2018.

"Its not like there aren't other alternatives companies could be using," Mason pointed out. Sugar, oatmeal and various seeds are natural options. Indeed, some companies have already agreed to start phasing micro beads out.

Free of micro beads

Unilever is aiming for 2015, Colgate-Palmolive in 2014, Procter&Gamble vowed to be free by 2017, while Johnson&Johnson and L'Oréal haven't given a date.

Mason says it can't happen soon enough, considering Americans alone buy an estimated 259,908kg of the tiny plastics every year.

The concern is that they absorb toxins in the water and fish mistake them for food. With commercial and sport fishing on the Great Lakes a $4bn industry, humans could also be eating these plastics.

That's the next phase of Mason's research: looking for plastic micro beads inside the digestive tracts of fish and other wildlife. The freezer in her lab is stocked with specimens.

Paul Dyster, the mayor of Niagara Falls, says calling for a boycott could be the next step if companies don't act quickly enough to remove micro beads from their products. He is chair of the Great Lakes and St Lawrence Cities Initiative — a coalition of Canadian and US mayors from 114 cities along the water bodies.

Right now, there is no practical way to remove the beads already released into the environment. Members of the initiative are attempting to work with industry and support pending bans, not only in New York – which sets an aggressive 2015 deadline to phase out micro beads – but also Ohio and California.

In the meantime, you can tell which products contain micro beads by searching the ingredients list for "polyethylene" or "polypropylene". I know I've stopped buying them.