Microbeads: Activism against a waterway danger
As Nemo’s pal Gill famously said, “All drains lead to the ocean, kid.” But who knew that brushing your teeth or washing your face might harm a fish?
Anna Gold, a Fairfield Woods middle schooler, understood the danger and wrote a letter to State Representative Cristin McCarthy Vahey in 2015, asking that Connecticut ban the micro-bead. Gold was inspired when an activist came to her door. “They were trying to get people to write letters to pass a bill against microbeads.
They explained more about the dangers, so I said yes,” she explains. “I researched them and learned more as I was writing my letter and drawing the pictures. I never expected it to get this far.” Gold was thrilled to eventually meet McCarthy Vahey, her state representative and neighbor.
“It was one of the first letters I got from a constituent after being sworn in,” recalls McCarthy Vahey. “Seventy more letters from people in Fairfield concerned about microbeads prompted me to file a bill and join forces with other legislators. The more I learned, the more sense it made. We are a community whose well-being is so directly tied to the health of the Long Island Sound, so an effort like this makes great sense for Fairfield and for the region as a whole.”
Many Fairfielders have been making environmentally conscious decisions regarding cleaning products for years, avoiding toxic chemicals that might harm the ecosystem. Now it’s time for the next step. Research has found that our oceans, rivers, and lakes are overburdened with tiny plastic microbeads, most of which are less than .5mm in size. What exactly are they?
Microbeads are pieces of plastic smaller than a pinhead and often appear as colorful little balls suspended in healthcare products. These non-biodegradable spheres can be found in scores of personal-care products such as toothpaste, exfoliating cleansers, shampoos, and cosmetics. Sea creatures absorb or eat the microbeads, which are passed along the food chain, ultimately contaminating humans.
Microbeads are not biodegradable and once they enter the marine environment, they are impossible to remove. They pass through water treatment systems as well.
In going about our daily ablutions, we might be inadvertently adding to the pollution in our waterways. According to the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, microbeads can be found in more than 100 common household products. One recent study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, estimates that eight billion microbeads per day are being emitted into aquatic habitats, three trillion per year in the United States.
Last July, McCarthy Vahey was instrumental in passing legislation in Connecticut to phase out the sale and manufacture of them by December 31, 2017. The Federal Government was not far behind in recognizing the problem. Last December, Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 was signed into law by President Obama. The law bans the manufacture of products containing microbeads starting the phase-out in July 2017 to January 1, 2018.
In the meantime, consumers have to be savvier. “We can all start by reading labels and spreading the word,” says McCarthy Vahey. “I definitely pay more attention to ingredients and am often surprised at the items that contain the beads.” One non-profit, Beat the Micro-bead, is leading the international effort to ban the beads and offers an app you can use to scan barcodes while shopping: beatthemicrobead.org/en/.
Many companies have already begun their own phase-outs. Unilever has removed plastic beads from all of its products globally as of January 2015. Proctor & Gamble has pledged to remove polyethylene microbeads from all of its cleansers and toothpaste by 2017. When shopping, here are some words to watch for on labels: polyethylene polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), and nylon.
“I’ve always been a supporter of environmental issues,” says McCarthy Vahey. “This was something I was more involved with, and Anna and the others who wrote had a lot to do with it. I always tell kids who come to the capitol, ‘You can make a difference. Isn’t that cool?’”
Exfoliating Folly - Consumers got hooked on the little scrubbing plastic beads in facial and body cleansers, touting the exfoliating benefits. Cocoa beans and apricot shells are used in many products with similar or often better results.