Users of face scrubs are washing plastic down the drain

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 3, 2014 - 6:50 PM

Minnesota needs to lead on microbead risks, safeguards.

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Microbeads and other plastic particles taken from Lake Ontario.

Photo: Brendan Bannon • New York Times,

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Two minutes? Maybe three? That’s how long plastic “microbeads” in many exfoliating facial scrubs are actually in use as consumers lather up, rub off dry skin, then wash the product and the beads down the drain.

But these tiny plastic spheres don’t quickly disintegrate after rinse-off, as many consumers mistakenly believe. Nor do they appear to be removed by many wastewater treatment systems (because of their tiny size — typically less than a millimeter).

Instead, the billions, maybe even trillions of microbeads used each day — there may be up to 300,000 in a single bottle — stay in existence long after they’re discarded, just like other plastic. The beads also make their way downstream, adding to the alarming plastic pollution from other sources already threatening lakes, rivers, the oceans and the aquatic life within them.

Recent research revealing that the beads are in the Great Lakes should spur Minnesota to shoulder a leading role in determining in greater detail how widespread microbeads are in state waters and, more important, what the risks may be from them. Among the early concerns: that the buoyant beads may absorb pollutants in the water, such as pesticides or PCBs, and keep the pollutants circulating or even concentrate them, instead of letting them settle to the bottom.

In addition, there are concerns that fish may mistake the beads for food, leading to questions about effects on fish and the rest of the food chain.

Minnesotans already have chosen to make a massive investment in water quality, thanks to the 2008 Legacy Amendment. The state is also at the forefront of efforts to rein in water pollution from triclosan, an “antibacterial” ingredient found in liquid hand soaps and body washes that may pose risks to fish and turn toxic when exposed to sunlight.

It only makes sense for Minnesota lawmakers and consumers to be at the leading edge when it comes to microbeads, another personal care product widely used without a full understanding of its environmental or health risks. In addition to facial scrubs, microbeads may sometimes be found in toothpaste or body wash.

Fortunately, the microbeads issue is one that could draw bipartisan support in the upcoming session. A contingent of Minnesota legislators who attended a 2013 conference came back alarmed by a presentation about microbeads in the Great Lakes and ready to do something about it. In 2012, environmental advocates who teamed up with scientific researchers from institutions such as the University of Wisconsin-Superior also found the microbeads in Lakes Superior, Huron and Erie.

“It’s just a misplaced human product that I don’t think belongs in our waterways, and we ought to be looking at what we can do to try and stop this from happening,’’ said State Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester.

State Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, already has begun drafting legislation. The bill will call for state scientists to identify microbeads in water samples currently collected as part of state efforts to assess waterway impairment. Findings would be reported to lawmakers in January 2016.

Hansen has offered up a sensible step, and lawmakers need to follow through. They also need to be prepared to take further action if microbead pollution is widespread. Further research may be needed on its risks and solutions. In addition, lawmakers may wish to consider a ban on these products, as they have done without success on triclosan.

Manufacturers such as Johnson & Johnson have announced they will start phasing out microbeads, an ingredient often touted on labels as a plus. Consumers can speed other firms along in making the same decision by purchasing products that contain natural alternatives to microbeads, such as cocoa beans, sugar or apricot shells.

Many consumers have unwittingly been washing plastic pollution down the drain. They don’t need to wait for lawmakers or manufacturers to stop doing that.

  • Man-made origins

    “They matched the same size, color, texture and shape of the microbeads found in popular consumer products.”

    MARCUS ERIKSEN, executive director of California nonprofit 5 Gyres, in a July 30 Reuters.com story. The nonprofit teamed up with academic researchers to publish an analysis of plastic in the Great Lakes.

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