Everyone wants smooth, exfoliated skin – well, except maybe fish living in the Great Lakes. The addition of plastic micro-beads to soaps and body wash began quite a few years ago as an industry trick to gain greater profit and help the public achieve smooth skin, but their effect as toxic, polluting agents was overlooked, and now fish and other wildlife are suffering. However Illinois has become the first state to ban these micro-beads, and companies are now reeling for alternative solutions to keep their products on top.
The polyethylene beads are commonly found in exfoliating facial scrubs, but may also be added to toothpastes and body washes. 573,000 pounds of these products are purchased every year by Americans, and you may be surprised to learn that just in one bottle of Johnson & Johnson facial scrub Clean & Clear, for example, there are 330,000 beads.
After one rinses their skin clean, the micro-beads wash down the drains, accumulate in the ocean, and according to a recent study, even flow out into the troubled Great Lakes. There, the tiny, plastic beads are often mistaken for fish food. If eating plastic isn’t bad enough for fish, the beads also soak up toxins like PCBs and pesticides in the water. And according to a recent study of lugworms in the Atlantic, it is suggested that small pieces of plastic transfer toxins to the creature that eats them. Simply stated, exfoliating body scrubs could be turning into attractive poison pills, little floating points of toxicity for fish.
And to remedy this issue, Illinois has become the first state to ban the use of micro-beads. 5 Gyres Institute has turned their research of micro-plastics in the Great Lakes into a platform for advocacy, pressuring companies to stop using the plastic beads altogether. And positive change has already been met – with Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal, Proctor & Gamble, and Unilever all announcing that they plan to phase out micro-plastics from their products within a few years. The companies say they need to find safe alternatives first. To help push things along, 5 Gyres has also released a Beat the Micro Bead app that scans bottles to tell you whether the product contains polyethylene beads.
However, while Illinois is taking productive steps in the right direction, eliminating plastic beads won’t solve the entire problem of tiny, plastic parts in the waterways. The floating detritus of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example, contains mostly small pieces of plastic broken up from larger ones. Solution still needs to be offered to clear this catastrophe, but for the present, at least getting rid of plastic beads will inhibit further addition to water pollution.
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