The recent push to ban microbeads in beauty products was jump-started by a discovery in the Great Lakes in 2012. Almost four years later, this newfound information has turned into a national movement. A movement that's been shrugged off, perhaps because how harmful can something so tiny really be, anyway?
Well, this initiative has since transformed into a bill and was just blessed with President Obama's signature earlier this week. And while you might've skimmed over the information before, you should probably get privy, because the new law will change the way you wash your face — for the better.
Let's start with the basics: What are microbeads, exactly? They're the tiny, spherical particles (smaller than 1 millimeter, about the size of a pinhead) made of plastic that have made a home in many beauty products you use every day: exfoliants, body scrubs, even toothpaste. They seem innocent enough at first glance, but they're actually wreaking havoc on our environment. Once they're washed down your drain upon rinsing, they make their way into the water system. Since they're too small to be captured by wastewater facilities (and don't biodegrade quickly when washed down drains), they then end up in our lakes, rivers, and oceans.
As The New York Times points out, this result is akin to grinding up plastic water bottles and throwing them into these bodies of water — but worse because of what dwells in the waters: fish. They often eat these particles, mistaking them for eggs. (A recent study noted that one quarter of fish found at California fish markets had ingested plastic.) And these creatures often end up on our plates for breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner. "Why this is such a problem is that we know that plastic in the ocean and in the waters attracts chemicals," explains Anna Cummins, executive director and cofounder of 5Gyres, a nonprofit organization at the forefront of the Ban the Bead! project. "Plastic is also made with chemicals, and those chemicals dip into the tissues of organisms that eat those plastic particles and then work their way up the food chain." A.k.a. to us.
The Washington Post reported last year that the tiny beads in some toothpastes were not only damaging our insides, the environment, and the creatures that dwell in our waterways, but are also causing serious dental hygiene issues. Michael Apa, DDS, confirms this concern. "Over time [they] can cause problems both with their abrasion when used with a sonic toothbrush against enamel, and [I've] heard of patients getting those micro scrubbers lodged in their gums, which can lead to gum irritation and site-specific bone loss, if not properly removed," he explains.
The presence of plastic has been a long-standing issue on the list of environmental concerns (I clearly recall yelling at my mom for not snipping the plastic portion of soda six-packs back in the day, because the poor dolphins!), so why did it take so long for people to take notice?
The Journey to Success
The quick answer is, nobody knew this was happening (and, if you look at the comments on this Atlantic article from two years ago, not many consumers even knew these exfoliants were made of plastic). Yes, there was an article Slate published back in 2008 surfacing the concerns, and there were some papers in the '90s and early '00s on the topic, according to Cummins, but few people knew the extent of the damage. "We've done 50,000 miles of ocean sampling around the world, and we don't ever examine the micro-plastic particles, because you just can't tell where they came from," explains Cummins. "Most of the plastics that we found in our samples are broken-down products, and they're irregular in size and shape, and there's no way to tell what country it came from, or even what product."
People started caring once they realized the substance was affecting one of the largest groups of freshwater lakes in the world. As Cummins explains, "It can be hard to engage people in coastal issues if they don't live right on an ocean," which is why 5Gyres, along with SUNY Fredonia, decided to venture into the Great Lakes in 2012. There, they did two summers' worth of research. "We found this one sample in Lake Erie that had over 1,200 micro-plastic particles; we were very surprised because this is a very high number for one simple sample," Cummins says. "We were scratching our heads and saying, 'Huh, what are these?' Looking at them in a microscope and comparing them to exfoliant beads — that's when the lightbulb went off. We were pretty stunned." Across the Lakes, the team found 43,000 particles per square kilometer, or about 107,500 particles per square mile.
Cummins' husband, the director of research and cofounder of 5Gyres, Marcus Eriksen, took this information and published the findings in a 2013 study. Cummins and her crew then brought this information directly to manufacturers like Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson. After some community organizing, they were able to get the companies to agree to phase out the microbeads. But when the businesses didn't specify when or how they were going to do so, 5Gyres realized the only way to get the ball really rolling was to take legislative action. The organization contracted an attorney in San Francisco to draft a bill, and, armed with the newfound research, it moved pretty swiftly in California but screeched to a halt when they lost by one vote on the Senate floor in 2014.
This is where the scientific evidence became especially critical. "A lot of what was going on in the legislation and Congress, when they hear the bill, they would say, 'Well, we don't have enough scientific information about microbeads to move this legislation forward,'" explains Chelsea Rochman, the lead author of a recent study published in Environmental Science & Technology. Her study brought us these shocking stats: 8 billion (Rochman explained to us that the trillion number originally published in the study was a typo) microbeads pollute U.S. aquatic habitats daily, which rounds out to approximately 2.9 trillion per year. "I got involved to show them that we have enough scientific evidence to say this stuff is showing up in our waters all over the world, and we have enough information about micro-plastic to say it's hazardous," says Rochman.
Since these numbers were released to the public, the issue began picking up speed again. Illinois and California recently passed bead bans, but it's the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 that everyone's had their eyes on. The bill, which just received Obama's John Hancock signature of approval, requires brands to stop using beads in their products by July 2017 and stop selling items with beads in them by 2018 — a condition that not many brands are too thrilled about.
They Don't Want You to Have Plastic-Free Products
Once companies realized the damage being done to the environment as a direct result of the products they were selling, one would think they'd be a little more proactive in pulling them off the shelves, right? Wrong. Well, sort of wrong. Lush removed all micro-plastics from its products last summer, and bigger companies — including Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal, and Unilever — followed suit, phasing them out from their products. But these changes didn't come without a fight.
One of the factors that forced groups like 5Gyres to seek legislative support was that the personal-care companies wanted an attempt at a workaround, a chance to come up with biodegradable alternatives, lest the brands suffer from "stifled innovation." And while biodegradable alternatives sound promising, without proper testing, there's no way of knowing for sure how or when they will do so before entering the environment and ending up as fish food.
"Industry representatives were going around and meeting with policy makers in states around the country, introducing their own language that had a loophole in the way they described plastic microbeads. That allowed companies to replace petroleum- or fossil fuel–based plastics with bioplastic," explains Cummins. "We were really concerned about this because bioplastics — at least the ones that are currently on the market — do not break down or biodegrade in an ocean environment."
Cummins adds that money is another factor in the delay and opposition among brands. "I think the resistance also comes from a pure cost perspective," she says. "It's going to cost them money to reformulate…to actually change out their product and manufacture a new batch, and that's extremely expensive." But necessary, and here's a massive takeaway, especially when you consider the fact that microbeads aren't even all that effective as an abrasive, as Cummins explains.
"They're smooth, they won't damage your skin, you can use the product every single day, but they don't really do much," she says. And since the beads don't work in properly deep-cleansing the skin, that then encourages consumers to use more of the products more often. If brands are forced to swap out these menacing microbeads (which are super-cheap to produce) for something actually effective, customers won't have to use the product every day. In turn, consumers won't need to replace it as often. Simply put: The personal-care companies will lose money. As DJ Khaled would say: They don't want you to have clean waterways, our fish friends to live long lives, or you to have a good bill of health — when it affects their wallets.
The Key Is to Keep Winning
The reason the newly signed law is such a big deal, Cummins explains, is because of the strong language. The act defines microbeads as "any solid plastic particle…less than five millimeters in size and…intended to be used to exfoliate or cleanse the human body," which shuts the door on a chance for manufacturers to switch to a different type of plastic. Though the phrasing is satisfactory for many, Rochman does see one flaw with the wording, and that's the use of the term "rinse-off products." "While rinse-off products are probably the most likely to go directly down the drain and into the aquatic habitat, what [that] doesn't include are deodorants and makeups [some of which also contain microbeads] that we ultimately wash off, but not immediately," she explains. But, she notes, the bill is a great start to a long-standing environmental issue.
And while strides are being made, we've still got a long way to go until these plastic bits are gone completely from the shelves — more than two years, to be exact. So what can you do now to help? You can start by spreading awareness, recommends Cummins. "It's so exciting that legislation passed, but there are still a couple of years for the bill to go into effect, and that means millions upon millions of beads are potentially going to be washed down the drain," she says. "It really requires public awareness for people to take action." Educate your family and friends through social media, through conversation. Share the short video below — a tidbit of scary but informative stats about the damage being done — and this article, for starters.
But perhaps the most effective point of action is cutting the damage off at the source. Start by taking a gander at this list of products on the market that currently include microbeads (basically anything with polyethylene and/or polypropylene in the ingredient list), and stop using them. You can dispose of the formidable face washes, toothpaste, and body scrubs, or even send them to companies like 5Gyres, who use them for educational purposes. Or you can send them back to the manufacturers. This is a new campaign 5Gyres is hoping to launch in the new year. "We're going to have a note — a respectful note — that people can download that tells manufacturers why they're sending them back: that consumers are interested in protecting the environment and their bodies," says Cummins. "And asking these manufacturers to make the necessary design change to make sure that they're protecting public health and the environment."
Additionally, the organization is going to provide DIY exfoliant recipes for consumers on its site. Ones that are cheaper and healthier, and won't pollute the environment or your body, using ingredients like coffee grinds or sugar scrubs. (Stay tuned for an article here about environmentally friendly scrubs.) In the meantime, keep this number in mind before reaching for that exfoliant you have lying around: "One single tube of Johnson & Johnson Clean and Clear contains up to 350,000 of these beads," says Cummins. "When you do the math, it's a lot." A whole lot.