I enjoy pretty much everything there is that has to do with the outdoors. Some of my most peaceful moments have been while walking through the forest, sitting on a beach, or boating (minus the loud engine). Accordingly I have a great respect for nature and enjoy learning about the plants and wildlife therein. My plan is to continue that learning process and hopefully enhance it by sharing what I learn. I intend for this blog to serve many purposes, but in the immediate future it will be a place for me, and hopefully others, to share ideas about reducing our individual impact on this planet, protecting wild spaces, and in general just to comment on the things we enjoy most in the great outdoors. I welcome all opinions as otherwise you cannot consider every aspect of a subject. However, I would ask that every opinion be expressed in a respectful way and considered with an open mind. Often there is no single right answer. Thanks.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Microbeads...who knew?

It feels like a long time ago, but I'm going to guess it was 6 months to a year ago, when I starting hearing negative press regarding microbeads.  It seems I am behind the times.  I certainly did not realize that microbeads were yet another human invention that, although sounding great in theory, turned out to be terrible for the environment.  What the hell is a microbead anyway?  It almost sounds cute.

According to Wikipedia a microbead is a polyethylene microsphere.  Poly what? If you would like a detailed explanation of what polyethylene is you can check out Wise Geek or Wikipedia.  Not scientific journals necessarily, but, informative nonetheless.  In short polyethylene is a widely produced plastic derived from petroleum or natural gas and used for items including, but not limited to, plastic bags, packing foam, bottles and other containers.  Polyethylene can be melted and re-molded into microbeads which are commonly used in products like exfoliating agents and toothpaste.  There are other uses for microbeads such as biomedical research and flow testing but I cannot say what happens to those microbeads.  What I do know is that the end destination for my microbeads was the ocean.

I had been using face wash with microbeads for several years.  I am not much of a beauty product tourist so when I find a product that seems to work I stick with it.  My face wash of choice was Aveeno Skin Brightening Daily Scrub.  It sounds wonderful in the description, of course, and it worked well for me over the years.  It never occurred to me to question what a microbead was.  My enthusiasm for the product waned almost immediately upon reading my first article and I would regard the bottle skeptically in the shower wondering what was worse: use the rest so as not to be wasteful but send more microbeads into the water system, or, throw it in the garbage wasting all of the resources that went into producing the product. How bad can microbeads be?

Microbeads are small enough to escape through sewage filters and collect by the millions in bodies of water. Articles in Time Magazine and NPR talk about the levels of microbeads in the Great Lakes.  According to the NPR article the levels of microbeads in Lake Ontario are among the highest at 1.1 million plastic particles per square kilometre.  For an article with some figures related closer to home I found this Vancouver Sun article dated June 27, 2014.  It references a collaborative study done by the University of Victoria and scientist, Peter Ross, who works for the Vancouver Aquarium.  The highest concentrations of microbeads were found near the mainland coast and amounted to 9,180 particles per cubic metre while the smallest amount was found in the open Northeast Pacific at 8 particles per cubic metre.

Polluting our waters, salt water or fresh, with plastic just sounds like a bad idea overall.  But if that overall reason does not resonate with you there are some specific concerns.  It is possible that small marine life are mistaking these microbeads for food and filling themselves with it.  At this point the plastic contaminates, which also can absorb toxins, make their way up the food chain into progressively larger animals and potentially onto our dinner plates.

As I mentioned I have been a little slow to catch on to this issue and when I started poking around in google I found articles at least as far back as 2013 warning of the issues with microbeads.  In June 2014 the State of Illinois banned the sale of cosmetic products containing microbeads and several other states were attempting to do the same.  In April of this year an article in the Saanich News "Plastics waste ban gains momentum in Greater Victoria" mentions that the banning of microplastics was being discussed in the House of Commons in March 2015 and Environment Canada was undertaking a study of whether to classify microplastics as a toxic substance.  According to a Saanich News article on June 11, 2015 they are still studying.  Several of the larger cosmetics producers have committed to phasing out the use of microbeads over several years and the June 11 article mentions that Loblaw's has committed to removing microbreads, phthalates and triclosan from its Life Brand and President's Choice products by the end of 2018.

Studies by the government and commitments by large corporations are encouraging in that the issue is not being ignored.  However, despite good intentions (I'm being generous here), these organizations are notoriously slow for a variety of reasons. As an individual I am capable of making a change in a matter of minutes.  It takes all of 30 seconds to scan the product ingredients and choose whether I will put that product in my basket or not.  Maybe you still have some microbead products kicking around your house.  It is for you to decide whether putting plastics into our water systems is a good idea or not.  There are alternatives available and there is no need to wait for governments or large corporations to make the decision for you.  For my part, the face wash did end up in the garbage and for the last many months my skin has been equally happy being washed with a bar of soap.

PS:  I should also point out that not all of the plastic pollution in our water comes from microbeads.  It also is a result of all of the plastic that is floating around in the ocean eventually degrading into smaller microplastics. Go ahead and google images of plastic islands in the ocean if you want to see the result of our love of plastics.  

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