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Mayors vs. Microbeads
Tiny plastic spheres used in cosmetics are polluting the Great Lakes. Local officials are trying to stem the tide.

Got an exfoliating face wash in your medicine cabinet? You might not know it, but that face wash—along, most likely, with some of your soaps, deodorants, and maybe even your toothpaste—is full of minuscule plastic spheres, known, appropriately enough, as microbeads. When you wash or spit after using any of those products, the microbeads go down the drain and wind up in our rivers, lakes, and streams.

A single 4.2-ounce tube of cosmetics can contain as many as 356,000 of those tiny balls, and, as Susan Freinkel reported in the most recent issue of OnEarth (see “Don’t Lather, Don’t Rinse, Don’t Repeat”), researchers have found microbeads in more than 200 consumer products. Needless to say, that’s a lot of plastic going down the drain and into our waterways, which can wreak havoc on aquatic ecosystems. Fish and birds often eat the plastic, which get stuck in their digestive tracts. The plastic could also leach toxins. And microplastics are difficult if not impossible to get rid of because no natural organisms break them down.

One place the problem is particularly bad: the Great Lakes, where last year scientists from local universities and the 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, detected the presence of up to 1.1 million tiny particles of plastic, including microbeads, per square mile—twice as many as had ever been recorded.

How to Avoid Buying Products with Microbeads

You might be surprised at how many cosmetics contain microplastics. To make sure that you’re not using any, follow these steps:

DON’T buy exfoliating products that list the ingredients “polyethylene or “polypropylene,” which are the two most common plastics used in microbeads.

DO buy products that use natural exfoliants such as apricot, grape seeds, oatmeal, or walnut husks.

DO use bar soaps instead of liquid alternatives that could contain microbeads.

DO scan a product’s barcode with the “Beat the Microbead” app available for Apple and Android. Those that receive a green rating are good; orange means that the company has promised to improve; and red means look for an alternative.

Now an organization that represents 100 U.S. and Canadian cities around the Great Lakes is asking their federal environmental agencies to do something about these pernicious pieces of pollution.  "Even though you cannot see them, they pose a very real threat to human and wildlife health," John Dickert, the mayor of Racine, Wisconsin, told the Associated Press.

Dickert is secretary-treasurer of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, a coalition of local officials working to protect and restore the Great Lakes ecosystem. In letters drafted earlier this week to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada, the group asked for details about agency research into the threat of microbeads and what actions those agencies are taking to keep microbeads out of waterways. Ideally, local officials would like the agencies to clean up what’s already out there (how is unclear) and eliminate more microbeads from slipping through wastewater treatment plants and ending up in the Great Lakes.

Instead of calling for a consumer boycott, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, which includes officials from Chicago, Montreal, and Rochester, New York, is asking companies that make plastic exfoliants to phase them out. That’s an approach that the 5 Gyres Institute has already had some success with. Four companies, including Colgate-Palmolive and Johnson & Johnson, have agreed to voluntarily stop using microbeads in their products by the end of 2017, but many more have either not set a date or made no commitment.

Until they do, perhaps a nice salt scrub will help keep you, and the lakes, looking good.

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image of Susan Cosier
Susan Cosier is OnEarth's Midwest correspondent. She previously worked at Audubon magazine, and has written for a number of science and environmental publications. She's a graduate of New York University's science journalism program. MORE STORIES ➔