By John Gibbons
There are some products, notably tobacco, that are only tolerated because they have been around for a very long time. These days, no one in their right mind would expect deliberately to bring such a toxic product to the market in western countries and to be allowed to promote and sell it to the public.
Or so you would think. Back in the late 1990s, the product development team in a cosmetics company came up with a brilliantly simple – and cheap – solution for how to add texture to personal hygiene products, such as exfoliants.
Until then, the industry used natural materials, including dried coconut, crushed walnut shells and finely ground walnut shells to add an abrasive touch to cosmetics.
These are, however, relatively expensive, and present manufacturing challenges. The industry’s ingenious solution was quietly to replace these natural ingredients with tiny round balls of polyethylene. Inexpensive and easy to handle, thousands of billions of these tiny balls have since been embedded in hundreds of personal care products, including some brands of toothpaste.
These microbeads are typically less than 1mm in width, and, once used, they quickly find their way into water systems, both inland and offshore. Their tiny size means they slip through the filters of almost all water-treatment facilities. In the US, an astonishing 1,200 cubic metres of microbeads end up in the rivers, lakes and seas every year.
Microbeads may be tiny, but they pack a fearsome ecological punch. Given their large surface area relative to their size, potent organic pollutants like PCBs and DDT adhere to microbeads, forming super-concentrated mini toxin balls. These travel quickly up the food chain, as plankton ingest individual dots and are then ingested in huge quantities by other creatures across the food web.
And, lest we forget, humans sit at the apex of the world’s aquatic food chains. While other creatures have little choice, by failing to regulate these dangerous plastics, we as a species are actually choosing to poison ourselves.
At a stretch, you might argue that the industries responsible for introducing this potent new aquatic pollutant could have initially argued that nobody really thought about what happened to these products once they were washed down the drain.
However, years of campaigning by environmental NGOs, scientists and concerned public officials have proved that the manufacturers couldn’t care less just how much damage their products cause. Since they don’t have to contribute a cent towards cleaning up the mess, microbead pollution is just another off-balance sheet ‘externality’ the shareholders of corporations like Johnson & Johnson, Unilever and Procter & Gamble are happy to make someone else’s problem.
In mid-2014, New York State became the first place in the world to outright to ban products laced with microbeads (a single tube of a well known facial cleanser was found to contain over 350,000 individual plastic beads). This followed entirely unsuccessful efforts to persuade cosmetics companies to voluntarily withdraw these toxic but profitable products.
The decision of the New York State Assembly to go for a total ban followed findings by scientists that America’s Great Lakes were becoming cesspools of floating plastic beads. Water samples drawn from Lake Ontario found 248,000 microbeads per square kilometre of the lake. When dissected, the innards of fish caught in the Great Lakes were found to be “festooned with microbeads”.
The scientist who led the research, Dr Sherri Mason, was asked by a reporter what she thought would be an ‘acceptable’ level of plastic in the Great Lakes. Her reply: “There shouldn’t be any plastic in our water, period”. Within New York State, more than two thirds of its 610 waste-water treatment plants are unable to filter out fine plastic particles.
At EU level, progress on phasing out microbeads remains painfully slow, thanks to well organised foot-dragging by many of the main culprits. A spokesperson for Irish Water described microbeads as “an emerging contaminant issue”.
Irish Water plans to initiate a monitoring programme to determine the scope and scale of the problem here, and to assess to what extent, if any, Irish water-treatment plants are capable of filtering out these tiny beads.
In a sane world, no corporation could introduce such a novel element, unannounced, into its products without them first being rigorously independently reviewed and assessed, both for toxicity and for their potential to disrupt food webs. In the real world, polluters profit and the rest of us pick up the tab. •
John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and tweets @think_or_swim