Arguably the most beautiful and treasured gem of our state, Lake Superior has been silently contributing to the pollution of Lake Erie, at our direct command.
By what phenomenon? Microbeads. Prized for their assumed exfoliating and cleaning power in toothpaste and facial cleanser, these tiny plastic pieces (1 millimeter or less) have become ingrained in our daily routines — although recently they have received quite the beating.
A bill was introduced in the Minnesota Legislature in February that calls for plastics to be removed from personal care products, with regulations beginning in 2017. Many states have introduced similar legislation.
So what is the cost of these small, exfoliating heroes?
The University of Auckland first outlined the consequences of plastic microbeads in a 2009 study. It found evidence of plastic microbeads flowing directly into rivers and lakes, unstoppable by water-treatment plants. Microbeads float in water and are often mistaken as tasty fish eggs by hungry fish such as perch. So now plastic from a cosmetic we use is found in the fish we eat — but what the plastic contains is even worse.
Microbeads act as a sponge for organic pollutants, so as we eat fish that have eaten microbeads, we are also ingesting chemicals such as PCBs and DDT, as found by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Fairport Fisheries Research Station. There’s no denying it: Microbeads and their associated dangers are entering the human food chain. Furthermore, microbeads never biodegrade, so once they enter our waters, they stay and continue to wreak havoc in the ecosystem.
The scale of microbead infiltration of our natural waters is not completely known, but microbeads in the Great Lakes have been heavily studied. Lake Erie contains 90 percent of the plastic in the Great Lakes, and there are 1 million microbeads per square mile. Fish in Lake Erie have been found with microbeads in their guts. According to Beat the Microbead, an international campaign against the use of microbeads in cosmetics, 11 percent of the recorded cases of marine animal harm by marine debris were caused by microplastics.
Now to Lake Superior, which is the least polluted of the Great Lakes. Lake Erie is downstream from Lake Superior, so water from Superior eventually flows into Erie via Lake Huron. Not surprisingly, Lake Huron has intermediate levels of microbeads, while Lake Superior has low levels. However, microbeads have been found in the sediment of Lake Superior, indicating that microbeads also can sink. Those microbeads that do not sink, however, will float downstream from Lake Superior to Lake Huron.
So what can we do? The easiest solution is to be accountable for the health of our water ecosystems and stop buying products that contain microplastics. Since one product can contain up to 360,000 microbeads as reported by the 5 Gyres Institute, an American nongovernmental organization, our individual choices as consumers can make a big impact. Furthermore, we can push for legislation that bans microbeads.
Now, we must ask ourselves: Why did it take so long for the threat of microbeads to be discovered? Doesn’t it seem pretty obvious in retrospect? We cannot simply assume that common products are safe for the environment.
This issue has gained a lot of momentum, thanks to impassioned activists. Legislation has advanced quickly because the solution is so simple and the cosmetic industry isn’t fighting too persistently. Alternatives that are more ecologically friendly, such as ground nut shells, were on the market before microbeads were used.
Fortunately, cosmetic companies have been extremely receptive to this issue and have even opted to stop using microbeads without direct pressure from legislation. Johnson & Johnson and Proctor & Gamble, among many others, have pledged to phase out microbeads. This type of sudden cooperation is not the norm for industry stakeholders when it comes to environmental pollution.
Let’s keep up this momentum of banning microbeads and draw attention to other threats to Minnesota’s beautiful outdoors that don’t enjoy such cooperation between industry stakeholders and environmentalists. Meanwhile, we’re lucky that Lake Superior is upstream and therefore contains the fewest microbeads, but let’s not ruin it for those who value the other Great Lakes as much as we love Superior.
Taylor Rystrom, of Hugo, Minn., is a student at Boston University.