Microplastics

Microplastics are small plastic particles that will persist in the environment indefinitely. Typically they are between 1 mm (the size of a ball point pen tip), and 5 mm (+/- the size of an eraser on a pencil).

 

These plastics are intentionally manufactured to be microscopic in size, and are referred to as “microbeads”. They are used in a variety of ways including: as cleansing or exfoliating agents in personal care products (cosmetics, soaps, toothpaste), in medicine, and by industry. Plastic microbeads (including the majority of biodegradable microbeads) do not dissolve in cold water. Most wastewater treatment plants do not remove them.(1) Once rinsed down the drain microplastics end up in rivers, lakes and oceans for decades or longer.

Microplastics are used for:

  • Cosmetic exfoliating agents: Plastic microbead ‘‘scrubs’’ replace traditionally used natural ingredients such as ground almonds, rice, oat-meal and pumice. They add color, texture and filler to products. 
  • Medical and industrial applications: Microbeads are used beyond cosmetics and research indicates that their impacts to the environment are not well documented.

Moving beyond microbeads, plastic fragments called “microplastics” are derived from the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic debris, both at sea and on land.

They come from many sources, including:

  • Fragments - from ground up litter, plastic molding, artificial turf
  • Line and fiber - from rope, machine washing of synthetic clothing, fish nets, cigarette butts
  • Foam - from food containers, packaging, building materials
  • Film - from cling wrap and other food and materials packaging
  • Production pellets - small pellets used as stock material in manufacturing plastic products

Scientists and public officials are just starting to realize:

  • Plastics are found everywhere, including in: oceans, lakes and rivers.
  • Exposed to the elements of sun, water and wind, big chunks of plastic will degrade to micro-sized plastic over time.
  • Plastics are made with a variety of chemicals and added “plasticizers” to enhance flexibility and durability.
  • Unfortunately plastics are known to absorb ambient pollutants such as PCB (a coolant), PBDE (a flame retardant), when they reside in polluted waters.(2)
  • Tiny plastic bits are being mistaken as food and eaten by living organisms, from the tiniest plankton, to lugworms, fish, amphibians, birds and other mammals.
  • Developmental biologists are sounding warnings about the lasting and harmful health impact of plastics once they enter the world’s food chain.
  • Scientists in China even report finding microbeads in table salt.(3)
  • The World Economic Forum stated this year: By 2025, without significant intervention, the planet could have 1 ton of plastic in the ocean for every 3 tons of fish; by 2050, it could have more plastic (by weight) than fish.(4)

A false perception exists that the Federal Microbead Ban signed into law in the U.S. in 2015 completely removed the threat of plastic microbeads. However, only SOME products with plastic microbeads were included in the 2015 Federal ban, so there is still more work to be done.

Colorado’s HB 1144: Personal Care Products Containing Microbeads Act of 2015 banned the production, manufactur-ing, importing and sales of non-prescription “rinse off” cosmetic products with synthetic microbeads by 2020. The Federal microbead ban is more stringent than the Colorado Act. The Federal Act will take precedence over individual state microbead legislation.

The Federal Microbead Free Waters Act of 2015 (No: 114-114) was signed into law on 12/28/15.

  • This Act bans companies from manufacturing cosmetics containing microbeads beginning on July 1, 2017 and from sell-ing them beginning on July 2018.
  • It disallows “biodegradable” microbeads (biodegradables are hard to identify, and cannot be depended on to degrade in anything other than an industrial landfill).
  • The Act bans “rinse off “ cosmetics. It does NOT ban “leave on” cosmetics (for ex: some sunscreens, lotions and creams), some of which reportedly contain plastic microbeads.
  • The FDA will be the implementing authority; it’s up to consumers to report violations once the law is in effect.
  • If you want to know if a product contains microbeads, check the ingredient list for polyethylene, polypropylene, poly-ethylene terephthalate, polymethyl methacrylate, polylactic acid, or nylon— these are the most common plastics that make up microbeads.(5)
  • Don’t buy products containing microbeads.
  • Send unused products to a landfill and not down the drain.
  • Donate them to an educational cause: 5 Gyres
  • Call the manufacturer and voice your concern (many products have a consumer 800 number listed on the container)

Colorado does not appear to know the extent to which outflow from our sewage plants contains microplastics. Ac-cording to (Denver’s) Metro Waste Water Reclamation District’s Director of Environmental Services, “Metro’s plants do not remove microbeads from the treatment process in any significant amount.

 

Microbeads pass right thru the plant and do not settle in the solids.” An initial study is recommended to understand quantity and types of microplastics entering CO’s waterways. Study results should guide policy choices. Scientists and advocates familiar with this issue stress the most effective option is to keep plastic out of all waters, rather than to clean it up after the fact. Public education, incentives to increase recycling (bottle bills with refunds), carefully considered product bans, and ideas tried in other states should all be considered by Colorado.

(1) Scientific Evidence Supports a Ban on Microbeads, Environmental Science & Technology 2015 49 (18), 10759-10761 DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.5b03909, Chelsea M. Rochman, et.al.

(2) How Plastic Pollution Can Carry Flame Retardants into your Sushi, Smithsonian Magazine, November 21, 2013, Jo-seph Stromberg, (Smithsonian.com).

(3) Microplastic Pollution in Table Salts from China, Environmental Science & Technology 2015 49 (22), 13622-13627. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.5b03163, Dongqi Yang, et. Al.

(4) More Plastic than Fish in the Ocean by 2050: Report Offers Blueprint for Change, https://www.weforum.org/press/2016/01/more-plastic-than-fish-in-the-ocean-by-2050-report-offers-blueprint-for-change/, World Economic Forum, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Co.

(5) Plastic Soup Foundation, http://beatthemicrobead.org/en/product-lists.</div>