More than face value? The environmental cost of microbeads

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More than face value? The environmental cost of microbeads

January 6, 2016

January 6, 2016

President Obama signed a bill that will ban the production and sale of microbeads - tiny plastic beads that are used as exfoliants in cosmetics like face and body scrubs, and toothpaste.

The legislation, H.R. 1321, the “Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015,” states that plastic microbeads cannot be manufactured after July 1, 2017 and cannot be sold after July 1, 2018.

“[The ban] is a really good step in the right direction,” said ASU graduate student Charlie Rolsky who studies microplastics at the Center for Environmental Security at the Biodesign Institute, “I bet 10 years from now, we will actually understand how bad microbeads are, because we don’t know right now. We have an idea. We know that they collect contaminants, and that they can pose physical threats.”

Microplastics are one of the leading ocean contaminants, with five plastic gyres swirling in the ocean, including one in the North Pacific that is twice the size of Texas.

Microbeads also collect contaminants when they are manufactured, when they go through wastewater treatment plants, and they continue to absorb chemicals in the environment making these microplastics potentially dangerous for the aquatic life that consume them, Rolsky explained.

“If there is a contaminant attached, those contaminants can bioaccumulate,” said Rolsky. “Or if a fish consumes a big piece of plastic, it could trick the fish into thinking it’s full and could cause malnourishment.”

From there, the chemicals and the plastic can also slowly make their way up the food chain and people through the consumption of fish.

A viewpoint article written for Environmental Science and Technology estimates that every day in the United States, 8 trillion microbeads leave wastewater treatment plants and end up in rivers and the ocean.

Plastic doesn’t just go away, it breaks down into microplastics which eventually sink down into the deepest parts of the ocean, of which science knows very little. 

“It’s a little scary because I can’t tell you definitively what the plastic is going to do,” said Rolsky, “But I guarantee you, we’re going to see microbeads still sticking around for hundreds of years.”



Written by: Ally Carr