Microbeads and Environmental Concerns

By Ariella Lewis
The environmental threat posed by microbeads in personal grooming products 

In recent years, campaigns have been launched to ban microbeads to protect oceans and marine biodiversity. Photo: Georgette Douwma/Getty Images

Americans are progressively kicking the habit of relying on disposable plastic water bottles for their hydration needs. We tote our reusable water receptacles with pride, aware that we are contributing towards the eradication of our planet’s plastic plague.

But, alas, the plastic plague is seemingly perpetual. Imagine grinding these plastic water bottles that infect our planet into miniscule bits and subsequently cleansing your body with these plastic bead-like fragments. As regressive and perplexing as it sounds, consumers are increasingly being encouraged to follow this detour. The tiny 3D dots sprinkled in many skin exfoliants, soaps, toothpastes and other personal grooming products are small but dangerous.

Like a whisper that is in reality a roar, these “microbeads” pose a bigger environmental threat than a consumer might assume. These beads cunningly evade wastewater treatment systems as they are rinsed off from the body; thereby flowing through pipes and drains, and eventually being discharged into oceans, lakes and rivers. A rainbow of hope is on the horizon, as state lawmakers in the U.S. take steps to ban microbeads in beauty products.

To the naked eye, the Great Lakes appear to be enormous water bodies, not easily polluted by the purchase of personal cleansing products. However, in reality, this is far from accruate. A study conducted by the State University of New York (SUNY) Fredonia on Lake Michigan found approximately 17,000 microbeads per square kilometer in the lake. To accumulate this data, a fine mesh net was hauled every half-hour in the lake to capture items bigger than a third of a millimeter. Another study by SUNY Fredonia with the same methodology at Lake Ontario, found 1.1 million plastic particles per square kilometer. [1]

These tiny plastic artifacts have the incredible ability to soak up tremendous amounts despite their size. Microbeads act like sponges, absorbing immortal toxic chemicals in their environment. Examples of these pollutants include pesticides, flame- retardants and motor oil. The absorbency of these microbeads are so incredible that a single particle can be up to a million times more toxic than the surrounding water. [2] These plastic pollutants resemble fish eggs and are perceived by marine critters as a food source. When eaten, they enter the food web. Yes, this means that we are consuming what we washed from our skin – the toxicity associated with aquatic microbeads is yet another case of pollution from our ‘cleanliness’.

Despite the evidence associated with the threat of microbeads, states like New York struggle to bar this plastic constituent (and eventual pollutant/health hazard). In 2014, legislation was voted on but failed to pass although microbeads were present in 74 percent of water samples taken from 34 municipal and private treatment plants across the state. Additionally, data suggested that the third most populace state washes more than 19 tons of microbeads down the drain annually. [3]

Upon recognizing the hazardous effects of plastic microbeads on our environment and human health, renewed efforts are being made by numerous states to ban them. The first state to implement such a ban was Illinois. In 2014, the adopted regulation banned the manufacture of personal care products containing microbeads by the end of 2017, and its sale by the end of 2018. [4] In October 2015, California became the most recent state in which lawmakers have banned the sale of personal care products containing plastic microbeads. Other states that have passed measures restricting the use of the microbeads include Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. [5]

While progress made by these states is commendable, they contain loopholes that protect stockholders in the hygiene industry. For example, the bans of microbeads often allow biodegradable microbeads to be amalgamated into hygiene products. Although newer plastics are categorized as “biodegradable,” they cannot be broken down through ecological processes; thus, the presence of environmentally harmful plastic microbeads would endure in products and the environment, despite the spike in legislation. California and New Jersey are the only states that include biodegradable plastics in their legislature’s restriction on microbeads. [6]

Legislators sometimes miss the mark in their policy efforts, so it is also up to consumers to demand safer products. The demand for reusable water bottles has decreased despite feeble action by lawmakers. Likewise, when in the skincare aisle, be sure to look for natural alternatives by purchasing personal hygiene products containing ingredients such as apricot shells, jojoba beans, and pumice. Both your health and the environment will be grateful!

[1] Corley, C. (2014). Why Those Tiny Micorbeads in Soap Pose Problem for Great Lakes. May 14, NPR
[2] Chelsea M. Rochman, Eunha Hoh, Tomofumi Kurobe & Swee J. (2013). Ingested Plastic Transfers Hazardous Chemicals To Fish And Induces Hepatic Stress, Scientific Reports 3, November 13, Article number: 3263
[3] Reilly, K. (2015). New York Politicians Seek Ban On Microbeads In Cosmetics, Cite Water Pollution. Reuters. July 20
[4] Staff Report. (2014). Governor Signs Bill Making Illinois First State To Ban Microbeads. Chicago Tribune, June 8.
[5] Abrams, Rachel (2015). California Becomes Latest State to Ban Plastic Microbeads. New York Times. October 8
[6] Coalition against microbeads: https://takeaction.takepart.com/actions/get-plastic-off-my-face-and-out-of-my-water

Paris Agreement: A Landmark Climate Change Policy Architecture Reached

By Joseph Nyangon

“History is written by those who commit, not those who calculate,” declared François Hollande, France’s president, after all nations reached a new climate change agreement in Paris. The 21st UN climate conference opened in Paris on November 30, 2015 and ran over its original deadline, closing a day late on December 12. Unlike previous conferences the mood among the negotiators and ministers from nearly 200 countries was celebratory. A historic action, the “Paris Agreement” was struck on the last day, ushering in a new policy commitment to ramp-up climate mitigation and adaptation worldwide.

The Center for Energy and Environmental Policy (CEEP) at the University of Delaware is an official observer organization and participant in the UN Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. It participated at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) to UNFCCC conference, focused on the promotion of a “polycentric strategy” to initiate and implement programs to realize just and sustainable solutions to the climate change. Its proposal is based on ideas and models developed at the Center. The CEEP delegation included its director, Dr. John Byrne, and Dr. Job Taminiau (a postdoctoral research fellow). The Center’s position paper submitted to the UNFCCC is titled: “A Polycentric Response to the Climate Change Challenge Relying on Creativity, Innovation, and Leadership.”

Dr. Byrne presenting findings from a study on the financeability of large urban solar plants in Amsterdam, London, Munich, New York, Seoul, and Tokyo. Photo by IISD/ENB

The Paris Agreement promises a flexible, ambitious and rule-based climate policy regime that represents a break from the past. The agreement commits all nations—developed and developing—to hold the increase in the global average temperature to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”—a more ambitious goal than had been expected based on efforts outlined in the pledges on climate action—“intended nationally determined contributions.” It reflects a consensus built over the previous year among the leaders of China, the U.S. and India, which contributed to the political support needed for adoption of the Paris Agreement. CEEP co-sponsored a side event with representatives from the Climate Alliance of European Cities with Indigenous Rainforest Peoples (or simply “Climate Alliance”), the Global Covenant of Mayors, and others at the COP 21. Climate Alliance works with more than 1,700 cities and municipalities spread across 26 European countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The event discussed the importance of cities in making meaningful contributions towards more aggressive national targets to reduce emissions.

Dr. Taminiau offered CEEP’s perspective on subnational climate change innovation, leadership, and governance. Other speakers at the event included Camille Gira, Secretary of State, Luxembourg European Union Council Presidency; Magda Aelvoet, Minister of State, President, Federal Council for Sustainable Development, Belgium; Tine Heyse, Deputy Mayor of Ghent, Belgium; Josefa Errazuriz, Mayor of Providencia, Chile; Julie Laernoes, Vice-President of Nantes Metropole, France; Marie-Christine Marghem, Belgian Federal Minister of Energy, Environment and Sustainable Development; and Ellý Katrin Gudmundsdottir, Chief Executive Officer and Deputy Mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland.

CEEP also worked with the Climate Change Center (Republic of Korea) to present a side event on “Preparing for the Action Plans on Post-2020 Climate Change Regime in Asia,” attended by former prime ministers and senior government officers from Asia. The event was well attended. Dr. Byrne presented a talk on “financeability of large scale solar.” His talk focused on technical assessment and financing feasibility tools to show that megacities can use a modest portion of their rooftops to generate over one-third of their electricity needs. Duck-Soo Han, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Climate Change Center and Former Prime Minister of Republic of Korea called for stronger cooperation and partnerships in Asia to combat climate change. Richie Ahuja, Regional Direct for Asia, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) summarised his organization’s work in Asian region on clean energy and clean cooking systems as low-carbon solutions. Professor Haibin ZHANG of Peking University and a Member of the Global Advisory Board of the Center for Climate and Sustainable Development Law and Policy (CSDLAP) offered a Chinese perspective on climate policy governance. And Dr. Oliver Lah of Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Germany examined EU-Asia climate partnerships.

The Center has actively participated in proceedings of the UNFCCC since Cop 3 in Kyoto, submitting position papers and attended 8 if the COP meetings. In 1998, CEEP pioneered an equity- and sustainability-based strategy for resolving conditions of socioeconomic and environmental inequality if full international participation in negotiating legally binding climate architecture is to be expected. In a journal article, CEEP researchers, Dr. Byrne and Dr. Young-Doo Wang joined Dr. Hoesung Lee (the current chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—IPCC), and Dr. Jong-dall Kim (current president of the International Solar Cities Initiatives) in proposing a global benchmark of CO2 to realize aims on sustainability and justice.

Dr. Byrne has contributed since 1992 to Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). His work is published in IPCC assessments which led to greater global awareness of the problem and the award of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to the Panel. The Center developed the Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU) model to address energy and environmental crises in an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable manner. The White House in an announcement made by President Obama recognized the Delaware SEU for its successful $70.2 million bond offering which received a AA+ rating by Standard & Poor’s. Dr. Byrne was the architect of this pioneering climate finance structure and with State Senator Harris B. McDowell III, led the Delaware SEU in adopting this and other innovations to dramatically lower energy and carbon requirements while improving state economic development.

The Paris Agreement marks an unprecedented inflection point in the global response to climate change. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol (adopted for action at COP 3 in Kyoto, Japan), it puts emphasis on registering commitments at all scales—global, national, provincial/state, local, and corporate—and tracks national performance over time. It covers a number of key issues: financing support—including technology transfer and financing amounting to US$ 100 billion annually by 2020 for mitigation and adaptation for developing nations to deal with climate change impacts; adaptation—to strengthen ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change; mitigation—to reduce emissions fast enough to achieve the temperature targets; loss and damage—to strengthen ability of countries to recover from extreme weather events and slow onset events; and global stock-take—to account for climate action. It also recognizes the efforts of all non-party stakeholders to address and respond to climate change, including those of “civil society, the private sector, financial institutions, cities and other subnational authorities” [2]. Studies conducted by the Center over the years have demonstrated the need for a polycentric policy approach to “bend the carbon curve” as Dr. Byrne often says. Implementing the Paris Agreement will require rethinking the role of cities and sub-national actions for climate finance so that the advantage for decentralized, small-scale and community driven initiatives is realized.

Additional Resources
[1] CEEP Proposes Polycentric Strategy to UNFCCC. Available at: http://ceep.udel.edu/ceep-proposes-polycentric-strategy-to-unfccc
[2] Adoption of the Paris Agreement, FCCC/CP/2015/L.9/Rev.1. Available at: http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09r01.pdf
[3] Byrne, J., Taminiau, J., Kim, K.N., Seo J., and Lee, J. (2015). “A solar city strategy applied to six municipalities: integrating market, finance, and policy factors for infrastructure-scale photovoltaic development in Amsterdam, London, Munich, New York, Seoul, and Tokyo.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Energy and Environment. Available at: http://ceep.udel.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/2015_WIRE_EnergyEnvironment_paper_6-city-solar-financing_jb-jt-knk-js-jl_WENE-182_10.1002_FINAL-1.pdf
[4] Byrne, J., Wang, Y-D., Lee, H., and Kim, J. (1998).“An Equity- and Sustainability-Based Policy Response to Global Climate Change.” Energy Policy. Vol. 26, No. 4: 335-343. Available at: http://ceep.udel.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/1998_ge_sustainability_equity_climate_change_2.pdf
[5] Byrne, J., and Taminiau, J. (2015). “A Review of Sustainable Energy Utility and Energy Service Utility Concepts and Applications: Realizing Ecological and Social Sustainability with a Community Utility.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Energy and Environment. Available at: http://ceep.udel.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/2015_ge_WIRE_Energy-Environ_seu-esu_jb-jt_WENE-171_FINAL.pdf
[6] White House recognizes SEU Model developed at CEEP. White House Press Release. December 02, 2011: http://ceep.udel.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/2011_SEU_Oversight-Board_bond_press-release_White-House_excerpt4_Dec-21.pdf