A “Micro” Win for the Reduction of Plastic Pollution in Oceans – A Few Microbeads at a Time

By: Sarah Beth Watson- Environmental Leadership Participant

Microbeads are small balls of plastic that do not dissolve when the products containing them are used, but are rather washed down the drain and can easily pass through wastewater treatment plants undetected due to their small size. Since they are not biodegradable they end up getting dumped into the ocean where they accumulate and severely harm the plants and animals in those environments (Murdock, 2015).

After clearing the state legislature, Governor Jerry Brown of California signed Bill AB888.  With this bill, as of January 1, 2020 it will no longer be legal in California to sell products containing microbeads, such as face washes, toothpaste, and other such hygiene related products. However, there remain some exceptions. Products with under under 1 part per million of microbeads can still be sold, as well as prescription drugs and cosmetics that contain them (Murdock, 2015). While it would be better for the environment if there were no exceptions, this law is a small win for lessening the amount of plastic pollution that ends up in oceans.

There is evidence that our oceans and other waterways are filled with microbeads. The paper Science Evidence Supports a Ban on Microbeads found that small pieced of plastics, including microbeads, are in every major open ocean as well as many freshwater lakes and rivers (Murdock, 2015). Another study completed in the San Francisco Bay in 2015 discovered that more than 3.9 million pieces of plastic, including microbeads, entered the bay each day from eight different wastewater treatments plants (Murdock, 2015). If this much plastic enters the water each day from 8 wastewater treatment plants, then it is almost unfathomable how much all of the treatment plants together would contribute and how much of an impact all the plastic might have.

This plastic pollution can have a negative effect on the marine life. Another study done by the University of California looked cut open fish from Indonesian and Californian markets, finding that a fourth of the fish had consumed human-manufactured waste or plastics. The ingestion of plastics by marine life can wound, suffocate, starve, and possibly contaminate them (Murdock, 2015).  The common expression, “You are what you eat,” comes into play here.  If we, as humans, consume these fish that have eaten our plastic waste, then we will unknowingly eat this plastic waste as well, which is not meant for consumption.

Besides the intrinsic value of nature and the animals within it, microbeads pose a threat to human health as well. Plastics contain toxins such as DDT, DDE, PCBs, and flame-retardants, and it is unknown the degree to which these can be passed on through our consumption of fish (Murdock, 2015). The precautionary principle should be exercised in the meantime and companies should work towards stopping the production of plastic microbeads. Companies should turn to natural options, rather than the synthetic options that pose such a risk.  Easy substitutes include seeds from apricots and jojobas, walnut shells, and rice bran (Murdock, 2015).

While the AB 888 law is a step in the right direction in reducing marine plastic pollution, there is much more that can be done. While it is great that California is on board, and New York has also proposed legislation for this same ban, these two states alone will not be able to reverse the trend (Fermino, 2015). In order to make an impact on the plastic pollution of the oceans, a greater number of U.S. states and other countries will also be needed to create policies to stop the production and the sale of products with plastic microbeads.