It’s time for Minnesota to take a big step in fighting a tiny new form of water pollution: plastic “microbeads.”
These almost-too-small-to-see particles are added to skin scrubs, toothpaste and other personal-care products as an exfoliant or abrasive, with each individual package containing thousands or even hundreds of thousands of microbeads. The trouble is that microbeads don’t disintegrate when they’re washed off. Nor are most municipal water treatment plants designed to remove them.
As a result, microbeads are washing into waterways across the nation, with scientists increasingly sounding the alarm about potential impacts. Research about microbead pollution is still catching up to widespread use. But a growing body of studies detailing their prevalence, including in Lake Superior and other Great Lakes, raises troubling questions about potentially having trillions of them in the environment.
Among the main concerns: The buoyant beads are able to absorb toxic chemicals in water and prevent these pollutants from settling. The microbeads may also look like a food source to fish. If they eat them, the beads and any pollutants they’ve absorbed could be introduced into the human food chain.
Gov. Mark Dayton’s key water pollution initiative — the buffer strip proposal, which is aimed at reducing agricultural pollution — has garnered headlines this legislative session. But lesser-known water pollution measures targeting microbeads have also made admirable headway with bipartisan support in the Minnesota Senate and House.
The Senate recently passed legislation — Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, is the lead author — that would prohibit the sale of personal-care products containing microbeads. If enacted, it would make Minnesota one of the first states to guard against this type of plastic pollution. Illinois already passed such a ban, and while some manufacturers are phasing out microbeads, a ban in Minnesota would put pressure on industry holdouts.
Differences between the Senate and House measures pose a potential roadblock to a ban being enacted. The Senate version closes a loophole that industry could use to get around a ban by claiming that microbeads are biodegradable. Marty’s bill sensibly requires that the beads would degrade in a certain time frame in a natural aquatic setting. Specific requirements on biodegradability would likely result in Minnesota having some of the nation’s strongest microbead safeguards.
Microplastics pollution remains a serious concern in Minnesota and elsewhere. Other sources include powder coatings for metal products, as well as filters and fibers in microfleece clothing, according to a recent report by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Microbeads are easily replaced by natural ingredients. Prohibiting the sale of products containing them is one of many actions needed to safeguard Minnesota lakes and rivers for future generations.