Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Long Island Assemblyman Robert Sweeney announced new legislation this week which would ban plastic microbeads, the tiny abrasive particles commonly used in personal care products. The legislation would make New York State the first in the country to outlaw the beads, which are turning up in waterways and fish. Last month we spoke with Rolf Halden, Director of the Center for Environmental Security at Arizona State University, and Sherri Mason, Associate Professor of Chemistry at SUNY Fredonia about why microplastics are hazardous to the environment. You can listen to that conversation above.
Here are a few highlights:
- Look in your medicine cabinet and you'll probably find a number of products containing abrasive microplastics - they're even in certain toothpastes. According to some estimates, a single bottle of facial scrub can contain as many as 300,000 microbeads.
- A few companies have pledged to voluntarily phase out microplastics. But you can see if they're in your personal care products by looking for "polyethylene" and "polypropylene" on the ingredients label.
- Depending on the size of the microbeads, wastewater treatment plants can have a difficult time filtering them out. Once in the water plastic particles can stay there for a very long time.
- Most plastics are extremely absorbent and once in the environment they can soak up a wide range of chemicals. "We're looking at long term pollutants like DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls and the brominated flame retardants," Halden told us.
- Microplastic particles can be eaten by aquatic organisms. "Within the Great Lakes we've collected fish samples and examined their stomach contents and found little bits of plastic," Mason told us. Once inside an animal, chemicals jump from the microplastics into the organism's fat supply.
- Toxins then bio-accumulate up the food chain. "A medium sized fish eats thousands of small fish, and a large fish eats hundreds of medium size fish and as a consequence chemicals that are within the organisms will magnify as you go up," Mason said.
- "In open ocean waters we have between 10,000 and up to 800,000 plastic particles per square mile. In Lake Erie they measured 200,000 particles per square mile. On some beaches we can find 100 particles per square foot," said Halden. A press release announcing the Microbead-Free Waters Act cited the "alarming high" levels of plastic in New York waters - and Lake Erie in particular.
- Plastics are so "enmeshed" within certain bodies of water that trying to clean out existing particles would likely kill the entire ecosystem.