According to the International Campaign Against Microbeads In Cosmetics, microbeads pass into household waste water streams directly and are too small to be retained by the standard filters used at sewage treatment plants and therefore enter the marine environment. They enter the sea and there animals eat or tangle in plastic pollution. Some of it inevitably enters the food chain.
Where do microbeads in seafood come from? A significant number of personal care products such as scrubs and toothpastes contain thousands of minuscule balls of plastic called microplastics, or more specifically, microbeads. Over the years, microbeads have replaced traditional, biodegradable alternatives such as ground nut shells, and salt crystals.
The microbeads used in personal care products are mainly made of polyethylene (PE), but can be also be made of polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) and nylon. Where products are washed down the drain after use, microbeads flow through sewer systems around the world before making their way into rivers and canals and ultimately, straight into the seas and oceans, where they contribute to the plastic soup.
“Plastic pollution can be a sponge for many hydrophobic pollutants, do these pollutants desorb, and bioaccumulate inside fish that ingest plastic pollution.”
In 2004, the findings of a research program led by Professor Richard Thompson of the University of Plymouth were published in Science and detailed the distribution of microplastic pollution. The article was the first to conclude the spread of microplastics and plastic fibres throughout the entire marine environment. And since larger pieces of plastic break down into smaller pieces and do not biodegrade, the amount of microplastics is accumulating.
Closer to home, Sherri Mason, an environmental chemist with the State University of New York in Fredonia, surveyed Lake Superior, Lake Huron and Lake Erie, and found concentrations of microbeads in excess of 1 million plastic particles per square mile. Those concentrations, with the exception of one published study, are the highest concentrations of anywhere in the world.
And, although it is difficult to find a list of seafood contaminated by microbeads, researchers in Britain mention popular species such as whiting, horse mackerel, John Dory, red gurnard and certain shellfish as being impacted. In the great lakes, commonly caught fish for consumption include lake trout, salmon, walleye, perch, white fish, smallmouth bass, steelhead and brown trout.
Although the full extent and consequences is hard to quantify, the accumulation of plastic, including microplastics, in the marine environment and the potential for seafood contaminated by microbeads is recognized as a serious, global environmental issue. In fact, Illinois recently became the first state to ban microbeads and New York and California also have movements afoot. Although Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever have all announced plans to phase out microplastics from their products in the next few years, more needs to be done to ensure the practice stops.
Take action to stop seafood contaminated by harmful microbeads
- Share the 5 Gyres National petition to ban the sale of products containing polluting plastic microbeads.
- Share the 5 Gyres Ban The Bead infographic in social media.
- Instagram products containing microbeads in stores, tag @5gyres and use the hashtag #banthebead
- Twitter products containing microbeads in stores, tag @5gyres and use the hashtag #banthebead
- Send any partially used products containing microbeads to 5 Gyres HQ. Products will will be utilized in The 5 Gyres / Chris Jordan Arts Outreach Piece. 5 Gyres HQ: 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90404
Photo credit: New York State Office of the Attorney General