Plastic Microbeads:  Ban The Bead!   

Microplastics may be small, but they’re causing big problems for our environment and our health. These tiny pieces of plastic used in personal care products are designed to go down the drain and into our lakes, rivers, and oceans — by the billions every day. They absorb toxins in the water, are eaten by marine life, and can make their way up the food chain all the way to our dinner plates.

We knew it wasn’t enough to simply avoid certain products – we didn’t want them to be sold at all. That’s why the Story of Stuff Project waged a major campaign to ban microbeads in California and then the whole United States in 2015 – and won! Thanks to our Community members flexing their citizen muscles, by 2017 it will be illegal to sell a personal care product containing plastic microbeads – a huge victory for our waterways and public health. This policy provides a precedent setting model for the rest of the world to replicate and is an important stepping stone to tackling plastic pollution in our oceans. Voluntary industry pledges will never be enough to stop microbeads: learn about banning the bead below!

Plastic Microbeads 101

What are plastic microbeads? 
Microbeads are really tiny plastic particles usually smaller than two millimeters.  The composition of microbeads can vary and often include polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethlyl methacrylate (PMMA) or nylon. Bottom line, it’s all plastic!

What products contain plastic microbeads? 
Plastic microbeads are in face soaps, body washes, and even toothpastes. They are sometimes included in “age-defying” makeup (yes, filling in wrinkles with plastic dust!), as well as lip gloss and nail polish. Most wastewater treatment doesn’t filter out microbeads, and they get discharged into waterways.[1]  As a result, micro-plastic particles are found in bays, gulfs and seas worldwide, as well as inland waterways.[2]

Does microbead pollution impact us? 
Could the plastic you’re washing your face with end up in your sushi? Crazy, but yes. Fish species that humans harvest for food have been known to eat micro-plastic particles at an alarming rate and the toxins absorbed in those plastics transfer to the fish tissue.[3]

Plastic microbeads absorb persistent organic pollutants (long-lasting toxic chemicals like pesticides, flame retardants, motor oil and more) and other industrial chemicals that move up the food chain when the toxic-coated beads are consumed by fish and other marine organisms. A single microbead can be up to a million times more toxic than the water around it![4]

How do I know if I’m washing my face or brushing my teeth with plastic?
Most people have no idea that those little beads are actually bits of plastic! In the United States, The Food And Drug Administration (FDA) requires that if a product contains microbeads the company has to list the ingredients. Not all countries require this, but many producers list their ingredients anyway. If you see any of the following ingredients: polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate or polymethyl methacrylate you’re cleaning up with plastic and being duped into contributing to plastic pollution in the environment—yikes!

What’s happening to put a stop to plastic microbeads?
In 2015, the United States enacted federal legislation to ban microbeads (woot!). The Story of Stuff Project led a coalition of over 100 groups to push back on industry-sponsored state legislation, and ultimately succeeded. Currently, other countries including Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and many others are considering microbead ban legislation as well.

Why can’t you just replace the microbeads with bio-degradable plastic?
Biodegradable plastics require an industrial scale composting facility to get the plastic really hot so it can degrade as intended. Since plastic microbeads are designed to wash down the drain, they simply won’t break down (not the mention the myriad other issues with bioplastics).

Why won’t the personal care products industry swap the plastic out for natural substitute?  
This question is kind of hard to answer because (surprise!) industry isn’t being real forthcoming about why they want to substitute one kind of plastic for another. What we’ve gathered here at Story of Stuff HQ from talking to these sneaks, is that companies want to keep the plastic in their products because it’s cheap and easy to source. But more importantly, plastic microbeads are smoother than natural alternatives like apricot shells, jojoba beans, and pumice. Why is smoother “better”? Smoother means these cleansers will be less effective at exfoliating, which means you can use them everyday, which means they want you to buy more of their Stuff!

  1. Research from New York University for effluent tested at several wastewater facilities demonstrated 80,000 micro-beads per day escaping treatment, per facility
  2. D. Barnes, F. Galgani, R. Thompson, M. Barlaz, Accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 364, 1985-1998 (2009). In 2012, scientists found micro-beads numbering more than 450,000 per square kilometer in parts of the Great Lakes.
  3. Yukie Mato, Tomohiko Isobe, Hideshige Takada, Haruyuki Kanehiro, Chiyoko Ohtake, and Tsuguchika Kaminuma, Plastic Resin Pellets as a Transport Medium for Toxic Chemicals in the Marine Environment, Environ. Sci. Technol., 2001, 35 (2), pp 318–324 (h)
  4. Chelsea M. Rochman, Eunha Hoh, Tomofumi Kurobe & Swee J. Teh, Ingested plastic transfers hazardous chemicals to fish and induces hepatic stress, Scientific Reports 3,Article number: 3263.