Kudos to California for being the first to enact a statewide ban on single-use plastic grocery bags. There’s no longer any doubt that discarded plastic bags are polluting our oceans, clogging our landfills and causing immense harm to wildlife. They can take up to a thousand years to degrade, and even then, they simply break down into smaller and smaller bits of plastic – still causing harm to ocean life.
And speaking of very small bits of plastic, we welcome news that plastic microbeads in personal care products are the next candidate for banning.
For years now, facial scrubs intended to exfoliate dead skin, and toothpaste intended to whiten teeth have contained these plastic beads – beads so tiny they aren’t trapped by filters in most wastewater treatment systems. A single tube of facial scrub may contain up to 300,000 of them.
When they reach streams, lakes and oceans, these beads absorb other pollutants, and are consumed by fish and shellfish. Like plastic bags, they persist in the water and in sediment for more years than we can imagine.
Illinois has banned them, starting in 2018. New York’s legislature voted in May to ban them as well. California’s Senate failed to approve a ban this year, but Ohio’s legislature is still considering it. A national ban would make more sense, but expecting congressional action is, of course, pure fantasy.
Fortunately, consumer outrage and environmental activism are having an effect. The use of plastic microbeads is so indefensible that some manufacturers are voluntarily removing them from their products. Proctor and Gamble, for instance, has promised to stop putting them in toothpaste by March, 2016. This action was taken after a dental hygienist blogged about finding blue specks of polyethylene stuck in the gums of her patients who used certain kinds of Crest.
In response to a media inquiry, Proctor and Gamble wrote that “while the ingredient in question is completely safe, approved for use in foods by the FDA, and part of an enjoyable brushing experience for millions of consumers with no issues, we understand there is a growing preference for us to remove this ingredient. So we will.”
The FDA points out that since toothpaste is not food, but an over the counter drug, and since plastic microbeads are not an “active ingredient,” it’s not their problem.
Some other manufacturers of personal care products are also promising to phase out plastic microbeads, but for many, the promised dates for going plastic-free are years away.
In the meantime, the most effective counter to the plastic microbead plague is a smartphone app – found at http://beatthemicrobead.org -- that will tell you if a product contains microbeads when you scan its barcode.
But even if we all stopped using products that contain plastic microbeads today – and even if we never use another plastic grocery bag – our rivers, lakes and oceans will suffer from these persistent pollutants for a millennium or more. When, we wonder, will humans acquire the wisdom to figure out the consequences of our consumer products before -- instead of after -- they cause such damage?