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Drowning in plastic

July 9, 2014

I’m preoccupied lately with trying to reduce plastic in my life, beyond obvious things like avoiding single-serve containers, carrying drinking water in a glass bottle, shopping with reusable bags and recycling the plastic I can’t avoid buying. But I had never really thought about plastic as an ingredient in a product I might use until I learned that the New York, California, Illinois and other states are moving to ban plastic microbeads—tiny polyethylene or polypropylene particles found in facial scrubs, shampoos and even toothpastes. A bill establishing a nationwide ban was introduced in Congress last month.

A single tube of facial scrub can contain more than 300,000 microbeads. Environmental studies, including one led by researchers at SUNY-Fredonia and funded by the environmental organization 5 Gyres (www.5gyres.org), have found alarming levels of them in the Great Lakes. Washed down the drain and into municipal sewer systems, the beads are too small to be filtered from effluent, and find their way into lakes, streams and rivers where they choke out plant life and have been found in the digestive tracts of fish and waterfowl.

The infuriating thing is that plastic microbeads need never have been invented. For years exfoliating products have been formulated with effective, biodegradable ingredients like ground nut shells, fruit pits, oatmeal and sea salt. In an era of growing awareness of the global problem of plastic debris, why on earth would companies intentionally introduce a plastic component that cannot be reclaimed, recycled, or prevented from accumulating in the food chain?

The problem with plastic is that it is with us forever. Never biodegrading, petroleum-derived polymers just keep breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. Fish, birds and turtles die from eating plastic bits they mistake for food. At the microscopic level, plastic absorbs pollutants such as PCBs, DDT, and PAHs—organic pollutants associated with the incomplete combustion of carbon fuels and with oil spills like the Deepwater Horizon. These toxins pose serious health threats as they enter the food chain and find their way onto our dinner plates.