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

Water: An Additional Reason for Rapid Deployment of Sustainable Energy Technologies

By Jeongseok Seo

waterNo one denies the importance of water. Our life depends on it and we need it to survive. However, we don’t always know the worth of water until the well runs dry or unless we live in drought-stricken parts of the world.

Many studies occasionally remind us of the importance of water. For example, the World Health Organization reports that 748 million people still lack access to clean drinking water and 2 million annual deaths are attributable to unsafe water, lack of sanitation and unhygienic conditions [1]. Furthermore, with growing concerns of climate change, water shortages are expected to become worse in the near future. Current projections of population and water demand growth, particularly in developing countries, and climate change impacts have led some to project that in 2030 global water demand will outstrip current supply by 40 percent [2].

Interestingly, a big water consumer is the energy sector. In 2010, global water withdrawals for energy production were estimated at 583 billion cubic meters or 15% of the world’s total water withdrawals [3]. This suggests that the energy sector can play a great role in addressing water problems if we find energy sources and technologies requiring less water. If we fail this task, we could face two crises in the coming decades – energy and water deficits [4].

Sustainable energy technologies, such as solar PV and wind power, can serve this role. Unlike fossil-steam (coal-, gas- and oil-fired plants on a steam-cycle) and nuclear power plants, they not only use very small amounts at the site of electricity generation but also have little or no water use associated with the production of fuel inputs [3][5]. For example, wind and solar PV barely require water to produce 1 MWh of electricity, while coal- and gas-fired plants and nuclear power plants use 390, 180, and 560 gallons of water, respectively [5]. And if we practice energy conservation, we can actually cut water use for the sector.

These facts provide a key reason for rapid deployment of sustainable energy technologies: our health and environment improve when we make thoughtful energy choices!


[1] World Health Organization (2014). UN-water global analysis and assessment of sanitation and drinking water (GLAAS) 2014 report: investing in water and sanitation: increasing access, reducing inequalities.
[2] The 2030 Water Resources Group (2009). Charting Our Water Future: Economic frameworks to inform decision-making.
[3] IEA (2011). Water For Energy: Is energy becoming a thirstier resource? Excerpt from the World Energy Outlook 2012.
[4] Wang (2009). Integrated Policy and Planning for Water and Energy. Journal of Contemporary Water Research and Education. Issue 142, pages 1-6, June 2009.
[5] Glassman D., Wucker M., Isaacman T., Champilou C. (2011). The Water-Energy Nexus: Adding Water to the Energy Agenda. A World Policy Paper.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Energy