Plastic Microbeads

Plastic microbeads are tiny particles of plastic that are sometimes put in products like face and body scrubs, hand soaps and  toothpastes. When they are washed down the drain, they often make their way out into the environment where they can remain in the water for long periods of time.

Recent studies have shown the small plastic particles are widespread in our waters, including in the Great Lakes. Once in the water, they can damage the aquatic ecosystem; for example, fish can mistake them for food. They also have the potential to kickstart the process of biomagnification of toxic chemicals in fish and other wildlife.

Key Points

  • Plastic microbeads aren’t easily captured by water treatment systems and are not biodegradable, so they can get in our waters after being rinsed down drains and remain in the environment for long periods of time.[1]
  • Recent research has shown that the Great Lakes are teeming with plastic microbeads, with higher concentrations nearer coastal cities.[2]
  • A single bottle of microbead face scrub can contain over 300,000 plastic particles.[3]
  • Consumers should avoid buying personal care products advertising plastic microbeads, as well as products containing the ingredients “polyethylene,” “polypropylene” or “polystyrene.”
Clean Wisconsin's Work

Plastic microbeads are a significant threat to our waters and aquatic ecosystems. Clean Wisconsin is working to reduce this threat, with an emphasis on preventing them from ever getting into waterways. We are pushing for legislation that would ban the production and sale of products containing plastic microbeads in Wisconsin.

Questions and Answers
  1. What are plastic microbeads? Plastic microbeads are tiny particles of plastic that are sometimes put in products like face and body scrubs, hand soaps and toothpastes.[4] They are often used to increase exfoliation, or scrubbing action. They can range in size from less than 10 micrometers (about the diameter of a red blood cell) up to a few millimeters (a millimeter is about the width of a credit card).
  2. How do plastic microbeads get into the environment? When they are washed down the drain, microbeads aren’t easily captured by sanitation systems due to their buoyancy and resistance to coagulation.[5] This means they can easily find their way past the treatment processes that normally clean the water that leaves our homes and get in the environment. As a result, when scientists looked at microbead concentrations in the Great Lakes, they found much higher amounts near populated areas.[6]
  3. What happens to plastic microbeads in the environment?  Microbeads are not biodegradable, so they remain in the environment for long periods of time and continue to accumulate.[7] For example, in Lake Michigan researchers found an average of 17,000 tiny pieces of plastic per square kilometer, or roughly 44,000 per square mile.[8] Researchers have also found them in everything from tiny invertebrates to large fish.
  4. What are the physical impacts of plastic microbeads on the environment? Plastic microbeads in the water can be easily confused for food by aquatic organisms. As a result, researchers have found them in everything from tiny invertebrates to large fish. And since they cannot be digested, they can cause problems like decreased feeding and disrupted digestive systems.[9]
  5. What are the other impacts of plastic microbeads on the environment? Plastic microbeads can contain various chemicals. Some of those chemicals are purposeful additives, like BPA, put in the microbeads themselves. Other times, the microbeads act like sponges, soaking up chemicals they come into contact with. Plastic debris in the oceans, for example, has been found to accumulate pollutants such as PCBs up to 100,000 to 1 million times the levels in the water.[10] When chemicals are absorbed by the organisms that eat plastic microbeads, they have the potential to kickstart the process of biomagnification, where chemical concentrations increase to much higher levels up the food chain, like in larger fish.
  6. What are manufacturers doing? Fortunately, many leading manufacturers have already stopped or are removing plastic microbeads from their products. This includes the five largest cosmetic and personal care product companies: Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Colgate Palmolive, L’Oréal USA Inc., and Revlon, Inc. These leaders have less than one-third of that total marketshare, however, leaving many potential microbead-containing products on shelves.[11]
  7. How do you tell if a product contains plastic microbeads? You can check your personal care or beauty products for plastic microbeads by checking the ingredients list for plastics like polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, or acrylate (co)polymer. You can also try looking up your product on www.beatthemicrobead.org or by using the Beat the Bead app.
  8. Why are we just hearing about plastic microbeads? Until recently, research on plastic pollution in our waters has been focused in the oceans. But new research has shown that microplastics like plastic microbeads are also found throughout inland waters. In the oceans, the vast majority of microplastic pollution is made up of fragments broken down from larger pieces of plastic like plastic bags or bottles.[13] In the Great Lakes, however, over half of all microplastic particles found by researchers were in the shape of microbeads.[14]
  9. Are there alternatives to plastic microbeads? Yes! While a large number of products, especially those marketed as “scrubs” do contain these plastic microbeads, there are also many that don’t. They use natural ingredients like rice, apricot seeds, walnut shells, powdered pecan shells, bamboo, pumice, fruit pits and oatmeal instead.
  10. What can be done to fix the problem? Unfortunately, there are no known methods to effectively remove plastic microbeads from the environment. As a result, we need to keep them from getting into our waters in the first place. Recently, proposed bills in Wisconsin follow the lead of other states to do just that, by banning the manufacturing of microbead-containing products, and phasing them off store shelves.

 

Quick Facts
  • Over 11,000 pounds of microbeads are used in Wisconsin each year.[15]
  • Wisconsinites may be adding nearly 400 billion microbeads to the wastestream a year.[16]
  • A single bottle of microbead face scrub can contain over 300,000 plastic particles[17]
  • Microbeads can range in size from less than 10 micrometers (about the diameter of a red blood cell) up to a few millimeters (a millimeter is about the width of a credit card).
  • Scientists have found microbeads in all the Great Lakes, [18] with densities higher near populated areas.[19]
  • An average of 17,000 tiny pieces of plastic per square kilometer has been found in Lake Michigan.[20]
  • Microbeads act like sponges, soaking up chemicals they come into contact with; plastic debris in the oceans has been found to accumulate pollutants such as PCBs up to 100,000 to 1 million times the levels in the water.[21]
  • In the Great Lakes, over half of all microplastic particles found by researchers were in the shape of microbeads.[22]
Wisconsin Data, Trends, and Legislation

Plastic microbeads are a significant threat to Wisconsin’s waters. Wisconsin is rich in water resources that support the lifestyle and economy of the state. Pollutants like plastic microbeads stick around in the environment for long periods of time and can significantly harm aquatic organisms. At the same time, they also have the potential to trigger the biomagnification of chemicals that can be harmful to human health.

Current Law (Wisconsin)

Wisconsin does not currently have any legislation explicitly dealing with plastic microbeads; there is currently no limit on their production, use in products, sale or disposal.

Current Law (Other)

The State of Illinois became the first state to pass legislation dealing with plastic microbeads in 2014. Illinois Public Act 098-0638 bans the manufacturing of personal care products with plastic microbeads by the end of 2017 and banned the stocking (“accep[ting] for sale”) of personal care products as of the end of 2018. It also bans the manufacture of over-the-counter drugs with plastic microbeads as of the end of 2018, and the stocking of those over-the-counter drugs by the end of 2019. That legislation represented a compromise struck by legislators, industry and environmental advocates in the state and has become the model for proposed legislation elsewhere.

To date, other states, including California, New Jersey, New York and Ohio, have also considered microbead legislation, though none of them have passed laws yet. New Jersey’s proposed legislation did pass through both houses of the state legislature in 2014, but was conditionally vetoed by the governor at the time.

Proposed Legislation

In 2015, two pieces of legislation were proposed regarding microbeads in Wisconsin. Assembly Bill 15 and its companion Senate Bill 15 were substantially similar to the Illinois law, following the same timeline: they would ban the manufacture of personal care products with plastic microbeads as of the end of 2017 and ban the stocking (“accep[ting] for sale”) of personal care products as of the end of 2018. They would also ban the manufacture of over-the-counter drugs with plastic microbeads as of the end of 2018, and the stocking of those over-the-counter drugs by the end of 2019. SB 15/AB 15 received unanimous votes in Committee,and awaits votes by the full Assembly and Senate as of March 2015.

Another bill, Senate Bill 18, has also been introduced to end the sale and manufacture of microbeads in Wisconsin; it has a more aggressive timeline of manufacturing phase-out by the beginning of 2016 and banning their sale by the beginning of 2017. As of March 2015, no action had been taken on that bill.

Cited Resources
  1. Fendall, LS, and Sewell, MA. (2009). Contributing to marine pollution by washing your face: microplastics in facial cleansers. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 58(2009), 1225-1228.
  2. Eriksen, M, et al. (2013). Microplastic pollution in the surface waters of the Laurentian Great Lakes. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 77(2013), 177-182.
  3. 5 Gyres Institute, Plastic Soup Foundation, Surfrider Foundation, Clean Seas Coalition, and Plastic Free Seas. (2013). Microplastics in consumer products and in the marine environment. Position Paper – 2013
  4. Leslie, HA. (2014). Review of Microplastics in Cosmetics. IVM Institute for Environmental Studies. Report R14/29.
  5. Fendall (2009). Op Cit.
  6. Eriksen (2013). Op Cit.
  7. Barnes, DKA, et al. (2009). Environmental accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci .364(1526): 1985–1998.
  8. Corely, C. (2014). Why those tiny microbeads in soap may pose problem for Great Lakes. NPR.org. May 14, 2014.
  9. Wright, S.L., Thompson, R.C. & Galloway, T.S. (2013). The physical impacts of microplastics on marine organisms: A review. Environmental Pollution, 178, 483-492.
  10. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association [NOAA]. (2011). What We Know About: Plastic Marine Debris. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.
  11. IBISWorld. (2011). IBISWorld Industry Report 32562 Cosmetic & Beauty Products Manufacturing in the US.
  12. Free, CM, et al. High-levels of microplastic pollution in a large, remote, mountain lake. Marine Pollution Bulletin. 85(2014), 156-163.
  13. Schneiderman, E. 2014. Unseen threat: how microbeads harm New York waters, wildlife, health and environment. Office of New York State Attorney General.
  14. Eriksen (2013). Op Cit.
  15. Calculated based on Gouin, T., Roche, N., Lohmann, R., & Hodges, G. (2011). A thermodynamic approach for assessing the environmental exposure of chemicals absorbed to microplastic. Environmental Science & Technology, 45, 1466-1472; and 5 Gyres Institute (2013). Op Cit.
  16. Calculated based on Gouin (2011). Op Cit. and 5 Gyres Institute (2013). Op Cit.
  17. 5 Gyres Institute (2013). Op Cit.
  18. Wagner, M., et al (2014). Microplastics in freshwater ecosystems: what we know and what we need to know. Environmental Sciences Europe, 26, 12. doi:10.1186/s12302-014-0012-7
  19. Eriksen (2013). Op Cit.
  20. Corely (2014). Op Cit.
  21. NOAA (2011). Op Cit.
  22. Eriksen (2013). Op Cit.

Clean Wisconsin Media and Materials

Comments

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Please cite this resource as: Clean Wisconsin, Inc. “Plastic Microbeads.” Clean Wisconsin Enviropedia. Retrieved from www.cleanwisconsin.org/enviropedia.

Last updated: 2/27/2015