Microbeads in the Hot Seat

An industrial pretreatment coordinator became an advocate of outright bans on microbeads in personal care products.
Microbeads in the Hot Seat
Ed Gottlieb

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We can’t see them, but they are in some personal care products many of us use, and their impacts on the environment are raising concerns.
Plastic microbeads used in products such as soaps, toothpastes and makeup are showing up in vast quantities in the ocean, the Great Lakes and other waters. The beads, as small as 0.1 micrometer in diameter, can pass through most traditional settling and filtration processes in wastewater treatment plants. So, once sent down household drains, they are largely destined for waterways.

Feeling pressure from environmental groups, clean-water agencies and consumers, some major personal care product manufacturers have pledged to phase out microbeads. Meanwhile, various state and national governments are looking at microbead bans.

The microbead issue has caught the attention of clean-water operators, including industrial pretreatment coordinators. Among those concerned about the issue is Ed Gottlieb, industrial pretreatment coordinator for the City of Ithaca (New York) Area Wastewater Treatment Facility. He talked about microbeads, the

environmental concerns and potential remedies in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.
TPO: Why are microbeads a concern for the clean-water industry?

Gottlieb: Microbeads are a classic example of an emerging contaminant. There is no definition of a safe level that needs to be achieved, and there is no regulation of them. As with pharmaceuticals, we don’t know what constitutes a safe trace amount of microbeads in the environment. We have evidence that they are harmful to microorganisms and possibly to larger aquatic and terrestrial organisms, and we can logically assume they are harmful to humans, as well, but there is no limit placed on them.

TPO: What are some of the observed or potential impacts of microbeads in lakes, streams and oceans?

Gottlieb: Once microbeads are in the environment, over time they tend to attract pollutants to their surfaces and hold on to them. That includes persistent nonpolar organic pollutants like PAHs, PCBs and DDT. Many or most of these beads are tiny enough to be consumed by aquatic organisms. So you have pieces of plastic that have collected toxic compounds inside of organisms, thus introducing those compounds into the food web, where they will bioaccumulate.

TPO: Why are microbeads used in personal care products?

Gottlieb: Microbeads have replaced materials like pumice, oatmeal, walnut shells and almond shells as the abrasive in many personal care products. They are being added to some products not for functional reasons but because they can make the product sparkly or colorful. Products containing microbeads are very common. One product we were using at our plant for hand cleaning contained hundreds of microbeads per use. They were listed as the second ingredient.

TPO: Why are microbeads able to pass through basic wastewater treatment processes?

Gottlieb: Because microbeads are very small and their specific gravity is very close to that of water, they tend to not settle out and they tend not to float. If the wastewater has any flow velocity at all, the microbeads will be carried along.

TPO: What if a plant has some kind of tertiary treatment?

Gottlieb: It depends on what tertiary process they have. We have tertiary treatment here, but it’s a chemical/physical removal process and it does not remove a significant amount of microbeads. We add a metal salt and a polymer, and we use a fine-engineered sand as a ballast to create heavier particles that settle out. We do not use tertiary filtration. If a plant was doing microfiltration, that could very well remove microbeads, but I would imagine the number of wastewater plants using microfiltration is on the very low end.

TPO: Why should industrial pretreatment coordinators be concerned about this issue?

Gottlieb: It’s our job where possible to prevent anything from coming down the pipe that might cause problems for our plant or for the environment. That’s our job description. I’ve been fortunate to have had time to work on emerging contaminant issues like pharmaceuticals and microbeads. I became involved with microbeads mainly because other people at our plant worked with the New York state attorney general to study the issue.

TPO: Has your state taken any action toward microbead regulation?

Gottlieb: I am very proud that our attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, has taken a strong stance by proposing a microbead ban that promises to be very effective. The state Assembly has passed his version of a bill with only one dissenting vote. The state Senate has not yet acted, and both houses need to pass an identical bill for it to be signed into law.

TPO: In your view, what provisions of this bill would make it effective?

Gottlieb: The attorney general’s version of the bill does not limit the ban to non-biodegradable plastics. It would ban all plastic microbeads in personal care products. It also does not prohibit local governments from taking their own regulatory action.

TPO: What is wrong with a ban that applies only to non-biodegradable microbeads?

Gottlieb: If there is an exemption for biodegradable microbeads, that opens the door to a whole range of plastics. The existing standards for biodegradability do not specifically apply to microbeads in water environments. They generally apply to biodegradability in aerobic compost piles, in soil or in other conditions like outdoor weathering.

So, for example, a plastic is biodegradable under the ASTM Standard D6400 if it breaks down in a municipal or industrial compost facility, where the material is exposed to high temperature in the presence of oxygen. That’s not a condition you’re going to find in a natural water environment, so that’s a huge loophole.

TPO: Have governments elsewhere taken actions related to microbeads?

Gottlieb: Of the eight states that have enacted bans on plastic microbeads in personal care products, only New Jersey’s does not include the exemption for biodegradable beads. Along with New York, California is considering a strong ban including biodegradable plastics.

Those that have passed microbead bans other than New Jersey are Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland and Wisconsin.

And last July, the Canadian government announced that it will develop regulations to prohibit the manufacture, import and sale of personal care products containing microbeads. In fact, they plan to add microbeads to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act’s list of toxic substances. They are doing this after reviewing more than 130 relevant scientific papers and consulting numerous experts.

TPO: What actions have you and your colleagues in Ithaca taken on this issue?

Gottlieb: We took part in a study funded by the attorney general’s office and conducted by the State University of New York at Fredonia. Influent and effluent samplers were set up so that a certain volume of water per minute would pass through a sieve able to trap all but the smallest microbeads. The test was run continuously for 24 hours to get a representative sample. The results were fairly conclusive that microbeads are passing through our plant and entering the environment. That helped inform the attorney general’s decision to support a ban.

Dr. Jose Lozano, our lab director, continues to collect baseline data on microbeads at our plant. We have also formed partnerships with researchers from Ithaca College who are investigating the environmental impacts of plastic microbeads on aquatic organisms in Cayuga Lake.

TPO: What is known so far about the prevalence of microbeads in the Great Lakes?

Gottlieb: In 2013, the first major study of microbeads in the Great Lakes was conducted by researchers from SUNY at Fredonia. The research found wide variation ranging from 575 to 1.1 million microbeads per square kilometer. Lake Michigan had an average of 17,000. Ongoing studies include sampling at wastewater plants and major tributaries to determine where the beads are coming from.

TPO: What actions would you suggest clean-water professionals take on this issue?

Gottlieb: We should all lobby to get effective state or local bans on plastic microbeads in personal care products – and make sure any legislation we support does not have that biodegradability loophole. And if a bill is introduced at the federal level, it will be up to us to present a united voice against any bill containing that loophole.

TPO: Have major industry associations taken a stand on this issue?

Gottlieb: Ithaca is a member of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. Microbeads have been a regular topic at the national industrial pretreatment workshops they put on every year. It doesn’t seem to have as much prominence as the flushable wipes issue. I think that is because wipes have a noticeable impact, increasing our maintenance costs when they clog our machinery. Operationally, plastic microbeads are invisible. But certainly for those of us who are focused on environmental quality, microbeads are a real issue. The plastic and personal care product industries have been very involved. The fact that seven of eight state bans include the biodegradable loophole shows how successful their lobbying has been.

TPO: On a day-to-day basis, what concrete steps can clean-water operators and pretreatment coordinators take toward limiting microbeads in waterways?

Gottlieb: We can make sure our own plants don’t use products that contain microbeads. There are still some cleaning products that use pumice or agricultural products as abrasives. You don’t have to use a microbead-containing soap to get your hands clean.

TPO: Is there a way to find out which products contain microbeads and which do not?

Gottlieb: An app called Beat the Microbead lets you look up products to see if they contain microbeads. The North Sea Foundation and the Plastic Soup Foundation launched it in 2012. In 2013, the United Nations Environment Programme and a United Kingdom-based organization called Fauna and Flora International joined the partnership to make the app available internationally. It has been a key factor in convincing a number of multinational companies to stop using microbeads.

TPO: So, there is some movement among manufacturers to eliminate microbeads?

Gottlieb: Yes. Some major manufacturers have pledged to phase out microbeads from their products. They include The Body Shop, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal, Procter & Gamble and Unilever. Readers can visit www.beatthemicrobead.org/en/industry to view statements from companies that are ending the use of microbeads in their products.


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