What’s up with microbeads? An update on a tiny terror wreaking havoc in our waterways

by Erica Cirino

In March, I wrote about a new study with a scary conclusion: Experts estimate there are more than 165 million plastic pieces in the New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary, a region where fresh river water meets seawater close to shore.

Many of those plastic pieces are exceedingly small in size—called, “mircoplastics,” they are less than 5 millimeters in diameter, or just about half the size of an eraser on the back of a pencil. Much microplastic is foam, but a significant amount is hard plastic pellets called “microbeads,” which are typically added to toothpastes, soaps and body washes to serve as a powerful scrubbing agent—this despite natural exfoliators, such as minerals and plant fibers, available for use by the hygiene and beauty industry.

Dr. Sherri Mason in the field. Credit: SUNY Fredonia
Dr. Sherri Mason in the field. Credit: SUNY Fredonia

I recently wondered, “When it comes to getting plastics out of freshwater and saltwater ecosystems, where are we now?” To get some answers, I called up environmental chemistry and microplastics expert Dr. Sherri Mason, who in April was awarded the title of EPA Environmental Champion for her research on microplastics. What follows is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Why are microbeads such a large environmental problem?

It’s important to note that plastic pollution as an overall topic is ranked by the United Nations (UN) as only second to climate change as an environmental concern in terms of its effects upon ecosystems in the world. That’s because there is so much plastic released into the environment and because plastic is having a dramatic effect on organisms, sickening and often killing them.

Microplastics and microbeads, the area of research I’m focused on, doesn’t have dramatic immediate effects of most large pieces of plastic. Instead, it has subtler, long-term effects. Microplastics act like little poison pills that don’t immediately lead to death but when ingested harm organisms, often when they get stored in its tissues (especially fat cells), causing bigger longer-term health problems.

Are there any laws aimed at preventing microplastic pollution?

The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 was signed into law last December by President Obama. Manufacturers can no longer make products with microbeads starting in July 2017 and stores cannot sell beauty products with microbeads starting in July 2018. So, there is a U.S. ban in place but there are still products out there now and Americans will be using them for years to come.

Some states had been passing their own microbead rules. But what was happening was that some states’ laws had different meanings. So while the laws all shared the goal of switching product ingredients from plastic microbeads to “biodegradable alternatives,” was there was no one legal definition on what “biodegradable” means. In states where law verbiage was ambiguous, industry officials could argue that almost any substance could be biodegradable. 

Any countries with similar bans?

Not yet. But the U.S. taking such a big step forward will likely inspire other countries to implement their own bans soon. I know the EU and Canada have been discussing similar legislation.

What can people do to help make sure they’re not using microbeads until products containing them are no longer manufactured or sold?

The main plastic being used in microbead-containing products is polyethylene—so, when buying [hygiene and beauty] a product that’s the main one to look for. Industry also likes to obscure the names of plastics in their products, so “acrylate copolymer” and “polypropylene” are two other words to look for and avoid.

People can also use the “Beat the Microbead” website and app. It’s something you can download and have on your phone in the grocery store to make sure you get products without microbeads. It’s as easy as scanning the barcode on a product or checking their product lists.

Many popular brands of beauty and health products, such as toothpaste, contain plastic microbeads. Credit: Thegreenj
Many popular brands of beauty and health products, such as toothpaste, contain plastic microbeads. Credit: Thegreenj

What needs to happen next in the U.S. to deal with ocean/freshwater plastic pollution?

Educating people of the problem is the first step: Many Americans don’t feel connected to the oceans, which is usually the water source we most associate with plastic pollution. But when people realize this is also happening in every river, lake and stream in the U.S., it hits home. When people see they are directly connected to the problem, that they’re bathing and drinking the problem, that’s when they start to care.

Plastic bags and plastic water bottles are becoming the next big target of legislation. A number of places have banned or put fees on plastic bags. These laws are huge in reducing the amount of plastic litter in the environment. Similar laws are happening with bottled water, such as in Grand Canyon National Park, which recently banned “disposable” bottles from being used there.

But next for in terms of microplastics legislation is dealing with microfibers. Every time we wash an article of synthetic clothing—which is made out of a plastic called polyester—a minimum of 1,900 plastic fibers falls off of it and goes down the drain. Like microbeads, these fibers go through wastewater treatment plants and get deposited into waterways.

So, we need to use washing machine filters and other technologies to prevent these fibers from escaping into the environment. But once those technologies are in use, we’d need legislation to make sure they’re used to prevent plastic pollution.

As part of the National Aquarium’s 48 Days of Blue campaign, which spans the 48 days between Earth Day and World Oceans Day on June 8, you can find daily challenges to benefit the seas on the aquarium’s website and we’ll be incorporating one challenge per week into our blog posts.

One challenge this week: Beat the bead! Armed with knowledge of what microbeads are and why they’re so harmful, you can now be extra vigilant about avoiding them. Bonus points for teaching your friends, family and coworkers how to beat the bead!

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.