Microbeads, which are used to add scrubbing action to tons of products — everything from toothpaste to face wash — represent the most insidious of pollutants. The tiny plastic beads seem innocuous as they slip down your sink, but they never really go away.
According to a new study, up to 8 trillion of these plastic pieces enter aquatic habitats in the United States each and every day. One tiny plastic bead may seem trivial, but it’s not hard to understand why enough of them to cover a tennis court — day after day — pose a major threat to wildlife.
And those 8 trillion beads that make it into aquatic habitats only represent 1 percent of the total number that are being dumped each day. Another 800 trillion or so end up in the sludgy runoff from sewage plants, which can go on to pollute waterways as well.
The new study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, calls for a total ban of the scrubbers. Personally, I’m all for it.
Even consumers who are aware of the dangers posed by the beads are likely to buy them in less obvious forms — like in toothpaste, where they’re barely visible. And once you have them, there’s no good way to get rid of them.
“We’re facing a plastic crisis and don’t even know it,” co-author Stephanie Green of Oregon State University said in a statement.
Furthermore, the researchers say, many of the bans put in place by individual states aren’t cutting it. They tend to contain loopholes allowing for “biodegradable” plastics — many of which only degrade ever so slightly before settling in for a long residence in oceans and rivers.
If you’ve got microbeads lurking in your bathroom, don’t panic — but don’t let any more of them go down the drain. The best options are to filter out the beads with a coffee filter — throwing them in the trash isn’t ideal, but it’s better than the alternative — or to find a researcher who’s studying the products and send them to their lab. There are also organizations that will take the beads and use them for educational outreach. You can find a list of microbead-free products here.