What's the Deal With Microbeads?

Plastics. They're in our waters, and that's a huge problem. Here's the scoop on microbeads, which might be just the tip of the plastic pollution iceberg.
What's the Deal With Microbeads?

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Federal legislation at the end of 2015 banned the future manufacture and sale of microbeads — those small plastic particles used as abrasives in personal care products such as toothpaste and facial scrubs — but they might be just the tip of the plastic pollution iceberg.

The Microbeads-Free Water Act of 2015 was signed into law by President Obama December 2015, with the support of numerous water-quality groups as well as the Personal Care Products Council. It was the result of many similar bans passed and enforced by states around the Great Lakes. In the view of Sherri Mason, an associate professor of chemistry at the State University of New York at Fredonia, who has researched the issue extensively, the new law should be successful in ultimately eliminating microbeads from U.S. surface waters as they get washed out to sea. Mason notes the bill moved through the legislative process quickly, and generated no opposition.

“It was an easy sell,” she says. “There are logical uses of plastics in society, and illogical uses. I’ve never met a single person who wanted to wash their face with plastic.”

An 'aha' moment?
Mason says the microbead legislation might have also succeeded in getting people to think about how plastic products affect the environment. “It’s created an awareness,” she says.

That’s important in her view since much of the plastic pollution she’s studying in her research is not caused by microbeads, rather by larger plastic objects or fragments of objects found in consumer products, fouling our beaches and waterways.

We’ll get to that later. First, microbeads.

Mason’s research confirmed large numbers of microbeads in the Great Lakes, especially Erie and Ontario, where her research found concentrations as high as 1.1 million particles per square kilometer. The materials can be ingested by fish, birds and other wildlife, resulting in physical problems — and even death. Microbeads can also absorb other toxic pollutants from the water.  

What about treatment?
So, can wastewater treatment plants remove microbeads from effluent?

Mason cites a study by the New York State Attorney General’s office that found microbeads indeed pass through the treatment process and enter New York waters. The study detected microbeads in the effluent samples from 25 of the 34 participating treatment plants, suggesting microbeads are discharged at most treatment plants operating across New York state.

However, the report recommended that rather than equip plants with removal technology, prevention of use in personal care was a more efficient and cost-effective solution. In other words, the report was a vote for the new legislation.

On the other hand, a study of seven tertiary and one secondary treatment plant in southern California by Steve Carr, Jin Liu and Arnold Tesoro of Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts (published recently in Water Research) found that microbeads were removed during the primary phase of treatment. The importance of effluent filters was minimal, the study suggested, reporting that microbeads were removed mainly in skimming and sludge settling operations. 

“Discharges from both secondary and tertiary treatment plants may be contributing only minimally to micro-plastic loads in oceans and surface water environments,” the authors stated.

What about microbeads in drinking water intakes? Not that big a problem, unless loadings are extremely high. According to information on various websites, water filtration systems meeting requirements for low turbidity and other stringent standards are also capable of removing particles such as microbeads.

Those other plastics
If microbeads represent the tip of the plastics iceberg, what lies beneath? The answer is plastic material used in consumer packaging and industrial garbage — commonly disposed of in storm drains, on beaches, and in the ocean and other waterways.

It’s a big enough problem to have mobilized a comprehensive beach cleanup campaign organized by the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

“Microplastics are an issue in the Great Lakes,” says Jennifer Craddick, engagement director at the Alliance. “The microbead regulation was a huge step forward in water quality in the Great Lakes and the oceans.”

But, she adds, it’s not just the beads. The larger pieces of plastics represent an even larger problem.

To combat the litter, the Alliance has organized an Adopt a Beach program, involving teams of volunteers around the Great Lakes that patrol local beaches and pick up and properly dispose of plastics and other trash that washes ashore. Beach cleanups occur between April 1 and Memorial Day weekend. This year, the Alliance has organized cleanups in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York states.

There’s more. According to Mason, microfibers are the next big issue. “Synthetic fibers are the majority of what we’re finding, both in streams and in fish,” she says. They’re manufactured, she notes, suggesting design improvements may be needed. “Or maybe we need filters on washing machines,” she says, “just like we have on clothes dryers.”


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