It's time to ban the beads.

Image by MCPA Photos |

Image by MCPA Photos |

You might be surprised with the plastic-content of some of your hygienic goods. While teaching second-year undergraduate students in Environmental Science, I saw they were shocked to learn how ubiquitous microplastics are in their products, how persistent they are in the environment, and how weak our environmental laws are surrounding their use.

Microbeads are tiny plastic spheres that are added to personal care products such as body wash, facial scrubs, and exfoliants. Manufacturers add them to their merchandise to offer something new to the market and (maybe) improve their performance. They have every right to do that in Canada, as there are no restrictions on their addition or disposal. Hopefully that is all about to change.

After a single use, microbeads typically end up down the drain and at the wastewater treatment plant. Conventional wastewater treatment is not designed to remove such contaminants, and if it were, it would come at a cost too high to justify. Ultimately, the beads leave the plant and end up in receiving waters; our rivers and lakes.

The Great Lakes have accumulated alarming quantities of microbeads and microplastics in the sediment. In 2012, Lake Ontario levels were the highest with 1.1 million particles per square kilometer and Lake Michigan had 17,000 microbeads per square kilometer. Fish can often mistake microbeads for food. As a result, these plastics can make their way up the food chain and into our food supply.

This presents us with two main challenges: the primary issue of preventing the microbeads from entering our ecosystem, and the secondary issue of cleaning up those that have already reached our waterbodies.

The solution to preventing the accumulation of polluting microbeads is to remove them at the source.

We, as consumers, have the power to make a difference by making informed decisions at the drug store. There are suitable alternatives to microbeads, such as:

Photo by sasimoto/iStock / Getty Images

  • sand or pumice;
  • sea salt;
  • raw sugar;
  • ground nuts;
  • fruit seeds (e.g. apricot);
  • coconut shells;
  • oatmeal.

The list of options is as long as our imagination will allow. Surely, these alternatives can become just as trendy as microbeads with the added benefit of being eco-friendly and/or biodegradable.

Across the country, we are seeing protests to hikes in our water rates aimed at improving the aging infrastructure that delivers (and takes away) water to our homes. These are relatively easy costs to justify for the sake of building a resilient and safe water supply system. But should we also have to pay for the oversight by our regulatory agencies and neglect of our environment by producers of personal care products?

Canada all too often follows in the footsteps of the USA in passing environmental regulations; hopefully history will repeat itself in this case. Illinois recently passed a ban on microbeads, and there are indications that similar laws will come into place in at least eight other states in the near future. To find out more about what’s being done in Canada, check out Environmental Defense and contact your federal representative.

This just in: Between writing this article and posting it a private member bill was introduced at Queens Park to ban microbeads from personal care products in Ontario! You can sign the petition here.

This article was originally posted via Sustainable Collective, which has since joined forces with The Starfish Canada.