Green Grab Bag

Published on February 27th, 2014 | by GrowWNYAdmin

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You may think it’s ‘cleansing,’ but it’s harming water systems

BY OLIVIA GAMBOCARTO, GROWWNY TEAM

photo_4Blue, green and orange beads suspended in various gels surround you as you walk down the aisle at your local supermarket. But did you know that the products you use everyday like shampoo, soap and toothpaste contain these beads too? These tiny plastic microbeads, less than 5 millimeters in size, are commonly found in many beauty products, cosmetic or other personal care products. These brightly colored bits of plastic have proven toxic not only to our ecosystems and wildlife, but also to people. Recently, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman proposed landmark legislation to ban these substances.

But, I use them to exfoliate my face, they must be safe. While that just is not the case. Microbeads are found in alarmingly high levels in the New York waters of Lake Erie.  Concentrations of these beads, which bind with already present toxins, in the Great Lakes are the highest in the world.

Microbeads, due to their small size, buoyancy and water insolubility, escape treatment by sewage plants and are discharged into rivers, lakes and oceans. The Attorney General’s webpage states, “half of all plastics collected on the surface of Lake Erie were the perfectly spherical, multi-colored beads identical to the microbeads used in beauty products.”

Issues Caused by Microbeads:

One of the biggest issues related to the discharge of microbeads into the environment is that they accumulate other toxins present in our waterways and are commonly eaten by fish and wildlife. Toxins like PCBs (industrial pollutants polychlorinated biphenyls) attach to the plastics and microbeads. Microbeads are eaten by wildlife low on the food chain and leads to bioaccumulation of toxins, into things that you and I consume. PCBs have also been shown to cause cancer in animals as well as pose other serious health risks.

Well if these microbeads are everywhere, what can we do to stop their use? That’s where this proposed bill, comes into focus. According to the Attorney General’s press release, the “Microbead-Free Waters Act would prohibit the production, manufacture, distribution and sale in New York of any beauty product, cosmetic or other personal care product containing plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in size.” Legislation like this has not yet been seen in the United States and hopefully sets an example for other states around the country to combat this environmental threat.

Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper and Citizens Campaign for the Environment, both member organizations of the WNY Environmental Alliance, have been very supportive of this legislation. Jill Jedlicka, Executive Director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, pointed out the importance of this legislation in protecting the investments in water-based economies and in helping the progress of Great Lakes restoration projects.

Company Reactions, Statements and Promises:

While many companies evidently did not think about the full life cycle of incorporating microbeads into their products, some are taking steps to improve.  “Three leading beauty product manufacturers – Proctor and Gamble, Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive – have all made recent commitments to phase out the use of microbeads in their products,” stated the Attorney General’s press release.  Proctor and Gamble own products such as Head and Shoulders, Pantene, and Crest; while Unilever owns TRESemme, St. Ives, Dove, and Axe.

L’Oreal has just released a statement committing to phase out microbeads from their products by 2017. This is an improvement applauded by Attorney General Schneiderman, who says the cooperation of the cosmetic industry is a critical step and he hopes that others will follow.

While these companies are striving to phase out microbeads by different dates, established by the company themselves, there are many products known to contain microbeads still available. These include Nivea (Beiersdorf), Olay (Proctor and Gamble), Clinique, Estee Lauder, Neutrogena (Johnson & Johnson), Biore (Kao) as well as many others. In 2013 however, The Body Shop, Johnson & Johnson, and Beiersdorf, have also agreed to phase out plastic microbeads, but no end dates have been set.

While this is a large list, it is by no means exhaustive; checking the product ingredient list for “polyethylene” or “polypropylene” will help to determine if your product contains microbeads. Other plastic types to be aware of include oxidized polyethylene, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and poly methyl methacrylate (PMMA).

Alternative Choices:

While this legislation will certainly help make consumers decisions easier when trying to lessen their environmental impact, there are many choices you can make right now to aid in decreasing microbead prevalence and pollution.

Choosing products with exfoliants like crushed shells (walnut, almond or pecan), salt or sugars are better alternatives to scrubs containing microbeads. However, you’ve got to be careful, just because the front of the tube says that it contains walnut shell granules, doesn’t mean it is microbead free.

Becoming involved with organizations such as Plastic Free Seas (Facebook), US based 5 Gyres Institute, and the Plastic Soup Foundation, can help to speed up the phasing out of microbeads!

A great resource from Flora and Fauna International is Tanya Cox’s “Guide to Good Scrubs”, available here. Additionally, check out “My Plastic Free Life” a blog by Beth Terry, who has been on the microbeads issue for years!

Launched by two Dutch companies is an application called “Beat the Microbead,” which scans the barcode of a personal care product and tells the consumer whether or not the product contains plastic microbeads. The app also tells you if the manufacturer has pledged to stop using them in the near future.

There are many safe and better alternatives out there, just run a quick search and you’ll come up with many – but don’t forget toalways check your labels and think about the entire lifecyle of your purchase!

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One Response to You may think it’s ‘cleansing,’ but it’s harming water systems

  1. Pingback: Facial Scrubs – Taking Dirt Off or Putting Toxins In? | Distilled Earth

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