The reason? Most toothpastes and many skin care products contain microbeads. Microbeads are so small that they pass through the filters in the sewage treatment plants and because they are made of polymer plastic, there are no bacteria to remove them from the water. Thus, they end up in the ocean.
The concept and technology behind microbeads is quite interesting and intriguing: Because of their small size and spherical shape they have a great surface area to volume ratio. When placed into a magnetic field, these tiny spheres can bind certain substances in a liquid and then be drawn out by changing the surrounding magnetic field. If you wanted to remove something from a liquid, you would add the beads, they would grab the substance, and then you could draw them out magnetically and make them stick to the container while you pour out the rest of the liquid. A great and innovative method to separate substances. Soon microbeads were coupled with substances that possessed specific properties and used to target for example, specific proteins. They soon made their way into many research and medicinal applications. They also made their way into hundreds of skin care products, soaps and toothpaste.
The great lakes are full of them. A study dragging a net that would capture anything greater than one third of a millimeter found over 17,000 pieces of tiny plastics in every square kilometer at the surface of Lake Michigan. Concentrations in Lake Ontario were even higher. This study was conducted only last summer and I am not aware of any studies looking into what happens when microbeads enter the food chain. When researching how to determine feeding rates of small plankton filter feeders, one of the standard methods used in laboratories is to feed them small plastic beads and count how many they eat. Thus, it is relatively safe to assume that plankton eats what looks like food, even if it is a tiny piece of plastic. In the absence of research results that show what if anything happens when fish eat this plankton or if small fish consume the plastic beads, we can only speculate.
Not all the news is bad. This week, the state of Illinois moved forward to ban microbeads from skin care and daily consumption products. A bill is also being prepared to expand this ban to the rest of the nation. An organization called the “plastic soup foundation” developed a cell phone app that lets you scan the bar code of a product and tells you if it contains microbeads. Several large producers have voluntarily agreed to take microbeads out of their beauty and personal care products. Unilever is leading this effort and L-Oreal, Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble are following suit and are developing alternatives to microbeads.
Plastics pollution in the ocean seems to have many faces and microbeads are just one of them. As we are about to celebrate once again America’s Independence, let’s not forget that we are not independent of the ocean. If you see the little plastic cones of the firework rockets washing up on the beaches, please pick them up and remove them. They are the perfect size to be mistaken for little fish by foraging birds and are often found in the stomachs of water birds like albatross. The Kodiak fireworks store has in the past exchanged bags of fireworks trash for credit, which was a great motivator to get kids to help clean up.
Switgard Duesterloh Ph.D., is an assistant professor of natural sciences at Kodiak College. She operates the Kodiak Ocean Science Discovery Lab and teaches ocean science to students throughout the Kodiak Island Borough School District.