Bedtime for Microbeads? Not So Fast

Microbeads are widely used in personal care products such as exfoliating lotions, toothpastes, shampoos and soap. As the name suggests, they’re rather small; a single product can contain thousands of microbeads. They sail right through the filters of water and sewage treatment systems and end up as part of the “plastic soup” in the world’s oceans, where they leach toxins such as PCBs, DDT, plasticizers and flame retardants to the marine environment and are consumed by unsuspecting fish and marine animals. And while small, they add up. The organization 5 Gyres has extrapolated that the United States flushes around 311 tons of microbeads into the ocean every year.  “There is a high probability that we are eating our own toxic plastic waste from consumer exfoliants designed to wash down the drain,” blogged 5 Gyres’ Stiv Wilson last year. writes, “Although the full extent and consequences is hard to quantify, the accumulation of plastic, including microplastics, in the marine environment is today recognised as a serious, global environmental issue.” In one study, about 35% of fish sampled had microplastics in their stomachs. And did we mention they don’t biodegrade?
The threat posed by microbeads became apparent to scientists only in the past decade. As recognition grew, the Plastic Soup Foundation, a Dutch nongovernmental organization, launched the Beat Microbead campaign in the summer of 2012. It calls for a ban on their manufacture, and until that can be effected, for producers to stop making them and for consumers to stop buying products that contain them.
Initially, resistant companies responded by defending the absolute safety and legality of microbeads and minimizing their contribution to marine pollution, although, Beat The Microbead explains, “none of the companies could substantiate their statements.”
Then industry changed its tune. Beginning with a phaseout announcement by Unilever in December 2012, other major brands have been following suit — Procter & Gamble, L’Oreal, Colgate-Palmolive, Johnson & Johnson, Beiersdorf, Target, The Body Shop, Ikea, Lush, and Nature Products, among others. Industry trade associations are supporting legislation. When Illinois became the first state to pass a phaseout bill, the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois went right along. The national Personal Care Products Council and the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, as well as the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Retail Association of Maine, testified in support of Maine’s microbead bill early this year.
If this seems too good to be true, that’s because it might be. According to Taylor Johnson, an environmental advocate with Vermont Public Interest Group (VPIRG), legislation is palatable to industry as long as it contains one big macro loophole that made its way into the Illinois bill. That was a provision that current microbeads can be replaced in products by “biodegradable” ones (a word Johnson insists should be placed in quotation marks). “You talk to some scientists and they say using the term ‘biodegradable plastic’ is a huge oxymoron, because plastic never truly goes away or breaks down”, he told us, “and this is even more true in marine environments.” However, Johnson was cautiously optimistic about a recent partnership announced by Honeywell and the biomaterials firm Metabolix to develop a microbead with a much higher biodegradability rate that is compostable and does not release toxins.
Microbead legislation is also working its way through about two dozen states, including Maine and Vermont. In January, Vermont’s 140 state representatives unanimously passed House Bill 4, which would ban microbeads from being sold in the state by 2018. Burlington-based Seventh Generation testified in support of the bill. Vermont’s bill contains a provision defining biodegradable microbeads as those which will break down completely within two years in the likely environment that they will encounter. Johnson expects that industry lobbyists will fight this provision.
A microbead bill has been introduced into Congress, but with Capitol Hill politicians unable to agree on the time of day, its prospects are slim. Last year’s version, which would have banned distribution of cosmetics containing microbeads, quietly succumbed to death-by-committee.
In Europe, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Sweden issued a joint call in December 2014 to the European Commission to ban microbeads.
Clean Yield Asset Management will make inquiries at companies in our portfolio to elicit their stance on microbeads and microbead legislation. For consumers, BeatTheMicrobead offers product lists and a downloadable app that scans barcodes to reveal which products contain microbeads. Help us spread the word by forwarding this article. (Direct your friends and family to this YouTube video if they prefer their microbead calls to action in a 2-minute burst of images, delivered by a rapping, bearded (of course) ship captain and a retro horn section.)

(Sources: 5 Gyres Insitute;; Vermont Public Interest Research Group;; Portland Press-Herald;;