Plastic Microbeads: A Small Piece of a Vast Problem

Imagine if someone had proposed this idea in a public forum 25 years ago: “Let’s start having microscopic plastic bits in products like facial scrubs. They’ll wash down drains, slide past wastewater treatment plant filters and end up – by the billions – in lakes and oceans. Because they resemble fish eggs, they’ll get eaten by countless marine species. They’ll attract toxic chemicals already in marine waters, and carry those contaminants into the food chain. Sound like a plan?”

The proposal, clearly, would have sunk like a rock. Why incorporate use of polluting plastic microbeads as exfoliants when natural substances – like ground-up fruit pits and salt – are readily available? Seen today with the painful clarity of hindsight, nearly everyone can agree that using plastic microbeads in consumer products was a dumb idea.

That is why the Maine Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee had a rare “Kumbaya” moment and recently voiced unanimous support for a bill, LD 85, that would – by the end of 2019 – prevent Maine retailers from selling consumer products with plastic microbeads. It’s why two personal-care product trade groups testified in support of that bill. It’s why more than a handful of corporations whose products contain microbeads – like Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive – have voluntarily agreed to phase out their use. And it’s why two states, New York and Illinois, have already enacted phased-in bans on plastic microbeads.

It’s heartening to see people come together across political lines to acknowledge that these ubiquitous plastic particles were an ill-considered mistake of monumental proportions. The decision to use plastic microbeads – made in corporate board rooms, weighing only price points – failed because it left ecology out of the equation. In Maine, where our culture and economy are inextricably bound to the health of the ocean, we can’t afford to make unconscious choices – even at our own bathroom sinks – that disregard the greater ecosystem. Our individual and collective well-being depends on thriving fisheries, safe swimming beaches, flourishing wildlife, and Maine’s reputation as a “vacationland.”

In the effort to contain plastics in the marine environment, we’re swimming upstream. By one recent estimate, 8.8 million tons of plastic enter global oceans each year. If that’s hard to visualize, the study’s lead author, Jenna Jambeck, suggests picturing five grocery bags of plastic debris along every foot of shoreline worldwide. Another study estimates the number of plastic particles now in global seas at 5.25 trillion.

Much of this plastic builds up in gyres, where ocean currents concentrate debris in “garbage patches” that stretch hundreds of miles. As these plastics are exposed to sunlight and waves, they break down into smaller pieces and are ingested by a wide range of fish, shellfish, seabirds and sea turtles. The indigestible plastics block their intestines, causing injuries and death.

The plastic takeover of our oceans ties back to our routine use of “disposable” plastics. Microbeads are particularly insidious because up to 300,000 can be packed in a single container of face cream. But every day, we grab and toss single-use plastics without a second thought: grocery and produce bags, eating utensils, food containers and other product packaging.

Americans – on average – now use 220 pounds of plastic per year, and global plastic production continues to rise (according to a new Worldwatch Institute report). Converting fossil fuels into plastics for one-time use is not remotely sustainable. Factor in the cost of transforming vital oceans into plastic debris pits, and the choice becomes even more unfathomable. Are we really willing to trade that much for handy packaging?

Sadly, there is no consensus yet on abandoning plastic packaging and bags. (The divisive hearings that preceded Portland’s ban on foam take-out food containers and its fee on disposable grocery bags made that clear.) It’s hard to understand why, since the effects of plastic packaging are so visible. We’ve all seen pictures of wildlife entangled in plastics, and have witnessed the accumulated debris along local shorelines. In Maine’s 2013 Coastal Cleanup, volunteers gathered more than 4,500 pounds of trash, including 2,165 food wrappers and 479 plastic grocery bags.

As with microbeads, alternatives are available. Manufacturers and retailers could phase out use of many disposable plastics, but they need to hear from consumers and be encouraged by municipal and statewide bans.

Maine’s proposed ban on microbeads is a critical first step. But to slow the flow of runaway marine debris, we need to stop relying on “single-use” plastics.


 Don’t wait for manufacturer phase-outs and state bans to take effect; stop using consumer products with microbeads now. Check ingredient lists and avoid “polyethylene” and “polypropylene.”

 Avoid plastic packaging wherever possible, and carry your own shopping bags, water bottles, thermal mugs, cutlery and storage containers (for takeout foods and restaurant meal leftovers).

 Voice support for LD 85 and other measures to minimize use of disposable plastics.