Part 4 of 4
In a time of often overwhelming environmental challenges, the fight against microplastics pollution in the Great Lakes appears to be auspicious. The rapid turnaround between the first research on microplastics pollution in the Great Lakes in 2012 and recent state, provincial and federal bans on the manufacture and sale of products containing microbeads has been impressive.
It also may prove to be an excellent example of the precautionary principle in action – an approach to addressing environmental issues outlined in the 1992 United Nation’s Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. The approach also is included in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
Microbeads are a type of microplastics pollution present in hundreds of personal care products and over the counter drugs including exfoliators, toothpastes, cosmetics and face and body scrubs. When these products are used and washed down the drain, they reach wastewater treatment plants that are not equipped to remove such tiny plastic particles, smaller than 5 millimeters. . The microbeads travel into our waterways and accumulate in our lakes and rivers. Often mistaken as food by aquatic life, the beads make their way up the food chain, damaging species directly and can potentially be consumed by humans.
Within a few years of initial research outlining the impacts of microplastics in general and microbeads in the Great Lakes, state and provincial legislatures responded with bills to restrict or ban their use.
Illinois was the first state in the Great Lakes region to pass legislation in June 2014, which prohibits the manufacture and sale of personal care products that contain synthetic plastic microbeads after December 2019. Other Great Lakes states followed with legislation in 2015, and Ontario’s Bill 75 would prohibit synthetic microbeads two years after it’s passed.
One issue with most of these bills and laws has to do with biodegradability. The speed at which a plastic compound biodegrades depends on its environment.
For example, plastics in freshwater environments degrade at a slower rate than in a soil or compost environment. Consequently, it is critical that any company or industry claiming that the microbeads contained in their products are biodegradable must specify the environments in which the product’s degradation can occur. Most state and provincial bills or laws do not clearly define the term “biodegradable,” nor do they refer to an industry standard for materials degrading in freshwater environments. Thus, ambiguous wording might allow manufacturers to replace synthetic plastic microbeads with another plastic “biodegradable” alternative that won’t actually break down in the Great Lakes.
The good news is that on Dec. 28, 2015, U.S. President Barack Obama signed the Microbeads-Free Waters Act, which eliminates this conflict over biodegradability. The Act defines microbeads as “any solid plastic particle that is less than 5 millimeters in size,” pre-empts all state laws and removes the biodegradable loophole. It prohibits soaps, body washes, toothpaste and other personal care products from containing the traditional plastic or biodegradable plastic beads as of July 1, 2017. The law also prohibits the sale of products containing microbeads as of July 1, 2019, which means all existing stock of products with microbeads must be eliminated from store shelves.
In Canada in August 2015, the federal government announced it was adding microbeads to its List of Toxic Substances, which would allow the government to regulate microbeads under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and phase out the use of microbeads smaller than 2 millimeters in personal care products by 2018. On Feb. 9, Environment and Climate Change Canada released draft regulations for the ban, which targets microbeads of the same size and allows plant-based or biodegradable plastic microbeads as alternatives. The draft rules are open to public comment until March 10 and can be found at ec.gc.ca.
The government of Ontario is working with stakeholders following five principles, including one to ban the manufacture of personal care products with microbeads by December 2017.
In Ontario there is also a private member’s bill, proposed in March 2015 as the Microbead Elimination and Monitoring Act, which would prohibit the manufacture or addition of microbeads in personal care products starting two years after passage. It is before the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs.
Microbead bans with urgent deadlines are to be applauded. But until all products containing microbeads are off the shelves and other sources of plastics into the Great Lakes are identified and controlled, the entire range of microplastics entering our waters will continue to be a concern.
The IJC will hold a technical workshop with researchers studying this issue in late April to compare findings and develop additional action steps necessary to stop their disposal into the Great Lakes. Look for further updates on microbead legislation and enforcement, as well as the results of the workshop, in the IJC’s blog and future editions of its newsletter.
Other articles in the series:
Former student intern at the IJC Great Lakes Regional Office
University of Waterloo, environmental studies, former intern at the IJC Great Lakes Regional Office