Is personal hygiene polluting the Great Lakes?

Author Becky Brown, Water Programs Coordinator at WMEAC.

Plastic, a fossil fuel product, is a fairly well known public enemy to the environment, and its wanton disposal has destructive impacts throughout ecosystems. Researchers continue to discover new avenues through which plastics reach the natural world, and a recent study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin describes the first effort to study plastic microbeads in the Great Lakes.

The article outlines three major reasons plastic pollution is a concern for marine environments:

  • Plastic pollution provides an avenue for non-native species to spread through the ecosystem

  • Marine species ingest and/or entangle themselves with the plastic

  • Plastic absorbs other pollutants becoming even more toxic to the marine species that ingest it, which, in turn, can create a public health hazard

Mircoplastics in the open water were the target of this particular study—the first of its kind in the Great Lakes. Over three weeks, the research team collected a total of 21 samples from Lake Superior, Lake Huron, and Lake Erie. Twenty of the 21 samples contained plastic.

The team of researchers included from 5 Gyres (a plastics pollution advocacy group), SUNY Fredonia, Algalita Marine Research Foundation, and Niagara University. By taking inventory of the composition of each of the samples and comparing the plastics to consumer products, the researchers were able to conclude that 60 percent of the plastic found in the 20 surface water samples were likely microplastic beads that are an ingredient in many personal care products like facial cleansers. Two of the most striking samples came from Lake Erie and included over 600,000 microbeads per square kilometer.

Last week, a segment on Michigan Radio outlined how wastewater treatment plants are struggling to comprehensively remove debris during the treatment process. While that particular segment concerned itself with the pharmaceutical products that wastewater treatment fails to filter, the concern resonates with how microbeads have accumulated in the Great Lakes in high concentrations. This week, another segment from Michigan Radio affirmed that concern and outlined the work of 5 Gyres.

According to an article from Plastics News, microbeads were introduced about a decade ago into facial cleansers and other exfoliating soaps as an alternative to walnut shells. 5 Gyres has been working with the cosmetics industry over the last several years to discourage the use of microplastic beads, and companies like Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, and Procter & Gamble are among the major companies that are voluntarily phasing out the ingredient.

In September 2013, Representative Terry Brown introduced House Bill 4994 to the Michigan legislature which would prohibit the sale of personal care products containing plastic. According to Michigan Radio, 5 Gyres hopes that such a bill would compel the major manufacturers to phase out plastic ingredients more quickly. The bill was referred to the Committee on Regulatory Reform on September 18, 2013, and no other legislative action has been taken.

Organizations are also working to empower consumers to avoid products that include microbeads. In 2012, two Dutch foundations, the North Sea Foundation and the Plastic Soup Foundation, developed a mobile app called “Beat the Microbead” that would allow consumers to scan hygiene products and be alerted to the presence of microbeads in that product. In 2013, the app debuted for international use. While the product list for the United States is not entirely complete, download Beat the Microbead to learn more and see how the app works.

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