Evidence of the environmental harm caused by microplastics is growing, and as awareness of the problem spreads, government regulators and firms are taking action. Nearly all focus is on microbeads, tiny plastic spheres smaller than the head of a pin, which are used in many consumer products like toothpaste, soap, facial scrubs, and exfoliants. The microbeads are too small to be filtered out of wastewater, and end up polluting ecosystems, as well as being eaten by marine life and accumulating along the food chain. An E.C. Green Paper from March 2013 found that microplastics “are ubiquitous and reach even the most remote areas with a concentration in water some times higher than that of plankton.” (More studies are needed, but already microbeads have been found in fish destined for human consumption, and even in dental patients’ gums.)
The Netherlands was the first country to start raising the alarm over microbeads, back in 2009. Still, it took a few more years for the issue to become firmly entrenched on the national political agenda. The Netherlands has since imposed an unofficial ban on microbeads, which should be in effect by the end of 2016, and is leading the charge for an E.U.-wide ban. Together with Austria, Belgium, and Sweden, the Netherlands issued a joint call in December (also supported by Luxembourg) for the E.U. to ban microplastics in detergents and cosmetics, saying the measure will protect marine life and seafood from contamination. Momentum is building in Australia, too. In late February, New South Wales and South Australia agreed to lead work on a “jurisdictional phase down of microbeads,” and the federal government publicly supported a voluntary campaign that is succeeding in getting cosmetics firms to halt microbead usage.
July 30 marked the first country-level action against microbeads in the Western Hemisphere, when Canada placed them on a list of toxic substances to be strictly regulated. The government says that a categorical ban will follow. (An election is scheduled for October 19, but both main opposition parties have called for a ban too, so hopefully one will be enacted regardless of politics.) Additionally, eight American states have passed legislation banning microbeads, and there are bills pending in 17 others, as well as at the federal level. (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lacks authority to regulate microbeads from consumers, the overwhelming source of these pollutants, so legislation is needed.)
Even though final regulations have yet to be formed in most places, many major cosmetics firms are keen to avoid consumer backlashes and increasing boycotts as more people become aware of the harm of microbeads. Seeing the writing on the wall, these firms have made public commitments to phase out microbeads over the next few years.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported in March that seven large companies had committed to ridding their scrubs of microbeads including Unilever, L’Oreal, and The Body Shop; the latest are Clarins, Clearasil, and Ella Baché. For instance, Clearasil said it was “committed to phasing polyethylene microbeads out of our products by 2016. We are in the process of exploring suitable alternatives that will deliver the same performance.”
Referring to microbeads, in late July the Economist wrote:
Procter & Gamble has made a commitment to phase them out. Loblaws, the largest food retailer in Canada, has said it will stop making them by 2018 (or sooner, presumably, if the law demands it). Colgate-Palmolive stopped using them in 2014 and Unilever phased out the last of its microbeads in January 2015. Johnson & Johnson (J&J) says it will have eliminated the use of polyethylene microbeads by the end of 2017. J&J has already begun reformulating some products to use jojoba wax, extracted from a shrub native to the deserts of North America.
There are other natural substitutes for microbeads too, such as seeds, husks, and shells. And in the future there may be a viable biodegradable plastic industry, although this is more controversial. Illinois’ pioneering microbead regulation of last year only applies to “non-biodegradable, solid plastic” without a clear definition of “biodegradable.” The National Association of Clean Water Agencies, a U.S. NGO, says that some biodegradable plastics need high heat to biodegrade, and it questions whether this will actually occur under real-world conditions, like at the bottom of Lake Michigan. This potentially major loophole is a troubling precedent — for example, the Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association says that Canada’s ban on microbeads will be based on that of Illinois.
For scientists and firms working in this niche field, the goal is to make affordable plastic that biodegrades quickly in natural environments, but not before a typical consumer timeframe (usually several months). For example, Metabolix partnered with Honeywell in March to produce a biodegradable alternative to microbeads by fermenting cornstarch (or using non-food crops such as switchgrass). These microbeads will supposedly degrade into carbon dioxide and water in a matter of months at the same rate as cellulose or paper.
But the biggest challenge for bioplastics is that they are competing against conventional plastics — incredibly inexpensive materials that have been honed for the past 60 years, noted Frederick Scheer, the former CEO of Cereplast, a once-leading bioplastics company that declared bankruptcy in 2014. “In order to be competitive with traditional oil-based material we needed the price of oil to be somewhere around $130, $140 a barrel,” he added. However, with cosmetics firms now upping investment in R&D for biodegrabable microbeads, there could be more cost-effective breakthroughs coming up.
The end of plastic microbeads is inevitable, but the real unknown is plastic microfibers, which are not deliberately produced but rather involuntarily “shed” by synthetic clothing when washed. A 2011 study sampled outflow from domestic washing machines and found that a single polyester garment (like a fleece jacket) can produce over 1,900 plastic microfibers per wash, which passes through wastewater filters and into aquatic environments. It also stated that 60-85% of human-made material found on shorelines consists of microfibers from clothing. A similar study in 2012 estimated that laundry wastewater is sending around two billion synthetic microfibers per second into Europe’s waters.
Outdoor-apparel brands were slow to respond to this shocking research, but recently the Outdoor Industry Association’s Sustainability Working Group, which represents 250 companies, has started to examine the microfiber issue in cooperation with marine-debris specialists from the Ocean Conservancy. Much more information needs to be collected, so that firms can see precisely what is causing the microfiber problems and how they can be reduced (and eventually eliminated). Europe is currently leading the way in addressing this issue. Specifically, Outside Magazine writes that Mermaids, a new research consortium funded by the E.C. and promoted by the Netherlands’ Plastic Soup Foundation, is dedicated to reducing microfiber shedding by 70%.
The scattered bits of information we have about microplastics show that the scale of the problem is staggering. New York state alone now rinses 19 tons of non-biodegradable microbeads down drains each year, and in Germany around 500 tons of microplastics in cosmetics are still being released onto the market each year. The amount of plastic dumped into the oceans is astronomical, so action is urgently needed. Consumers should avoid all products containing plastic microbeads, which should be banned everywhere. And pending further research there may need to be systemic legally-required changes in clothing manufacturing to cut down on plastic microfiber shedding.
As the amount of scientific evidence grows — and with consumers, governments, and firms increasingly on board with this agenda — there is hope that the problem of microplastics can be overcome in the next few years.