Canada this month took steps toward joining the United States in banning the sale of personal-hygiene products that contain tiny plastics known as microbeads in an effort to keep them away from fish and wildlife and address plastic pollution in general.
The battle continues against larger plastics such as discarded milk, juice, and soda containers, though.
Microbeads are typically abrasives found in some facial scrubs, shower gels, toothpastes, shampoos, and soaps. They also can be fragments of plastic bags, or bits of plastic fiber in clothes.
At 5 millimeters or less, microbeads are often so small they cannot be filtered out by sewage-treatment plants. Many of them are a fraction of 1 millimeter — small enough that dozens could occupy a human fingertip or cover a penny. A tube of facial cleanser can have about 330,000 of them.
The issue gained relatively quick support once the problem became known, compared to the years of contentious litigation some toxic chemicals get. The cosmetic, health, and beauty industry itself has begun to voluntarily phase out products. Some are replacing them with natural alternatives, such as crushed almonds, oatmeal, and pumice.
Last December, Congress approved legislation requiring no additional products with microbeads be made as of next July 1, and that the sale of them cease by July 1, 2018. President Obama signed the bill into law that month.
Now, in a new set of regulations published on Nov. 4, the Canadian government has followed that action by saying it will likewise ban the sale of microbeads in toiletries there on July 1, 2018. Canada is giving another year, until July of 2019, for microbeads to be removed from natural health products and nonprescription drugs sold in that country.
The Canadian government said microbeads have been reported in coastal British Columbia, the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River, and in coastal Atlantic Canada.
It said it will prohibit the manufacture, import, sale, or offer for sale of toiletries that contain plastic microbeads, and that it cannot rely on voluntary industry efforts alone because there is “a risk of reintroduction or continued import” of those products.
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), co-chairman of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force, said she is pleased Canada followed through with similar action. The Senate version was co-authored by U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio).
“While they may not seem scary, these tiny plastic beads can have a devastating impact on fish, wildlife, and humans,” Kristy Meyer, Ohio Environmental Council managing director of natural resources, said.
The U.S. campaign was pushed hard by other environmental groups too, such as the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes.
Jennifer J. Caddick, the alliance’s communications and engagement vice president, said Canada’s follow-up action “is certainly a good step for the lakes,” but she reminded people that microbeads “are a piece of the larger plastic-pollution puzzle” and more work needs to be done.
The Personal Care Products Council, the American Chemistry Council, Revlon, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Consumer Healthcare Products Associations, and the Plastics Industry Trade Association supported the U.S. legislation, according to Mr. Portman’s office.
The Independent Cosmetic Manufacturers and Distributors trade group, which has represented cosmetic companies globally since 1974, said last year many of its clients had begun replacing microbeads “with viable alternatives.”
Sherri “Sam” Mason, a State University of New York-Fredonia chemistry professor who researches the beads, said last year it’s time to address the general issue of plastic pollution in a more meaningful way.
In a 2015 report by the New York State Attorney General’s Office, Ms. Mason and Jennifer Nalbone, an environmental scientist in that office, found 25 of 34 upstate New York sewage-treatment plants had microbeads in the finished effluent discharged to Lake Ontario and Lake Erie tributaries. All had some form of plastic.
The beads are too small to be removed from the waste stream. They are believed to absorb PCBs and other toxins. Predator fish can confuse them for eggs and fill up on them.
Lake Ontario and Lake Erie are believed to be the two worst places in the Great Lakes region for them, in part because of their population densities and because of how tiny particles are believed to migrate down from the upper lakes.
The Ann Arbor-based Great Lakes Fishery Commission has said it hopes a greater focus on plastics will bring more attention to the issue of discarded fishing gear that pollutes the lakes and the oceans.
The National Academy of Sciences claims more than 90 percent of sea birds have pieces of plastic in their guts, some of it microbeads and some of it larger pieces.
Europe and Australia are at various stages of banning or phasing out microbeads, the Canadian government noted in its new rules.