A Cosmetic Fix Won't Save Our Seas

U.S. ban on microbeads will help but it can't stem global tide of trash.

Swimming with sacks in Manila Bay.

Photographer: Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images

It's a rare day when Congress can reach bipartisan agreement. Rarer still is agreement on a measure to protect the environment.

So it seemed almost shocking that just before the holiday break Congress passed -- without opposition -- a bill to ban the plastic microbeads found in body and facial scrubs and toothpaste. President Barack Obama signed the bill into law on Dec. 28.

No, there isn't a catch. The law imposes a nationwide ban, and pre-empts the handful of state laws planned or already in place, including those that provided a loophole for biodegradable beads. Environmentalists complained these materials don't break down as advertised.

The trouble with microbeads -- a single four-ounce tube of facial scrub can contain 350,000 -- is that 1.4 trillion of them wash down the drain in the U.S. each year, and pass through sewage treatment systems and into rivers and oceans. An untold amount of these are consumed by small marine creatures and get into the human food chain. Worse, toxins in the water such as PCBs and dioxins tend to stick to the beads, meaning that potentially noxious stuff is concentrated in the fish and seafood we eat.

As nasty as these substances are, though, the ban wouldn't have sailed through Congress if the consumer-products industry had mounted serious objections to it. As it happens, many major cosmetics makers has already agreed to phase out microbeads -- thanks in part to campaigns like Ban the Bead! A nationwide ban was almost a foregone conclusion anyway after California in October joined six other states in barring use of microbeads in personal-care products. 

Here's something to consider, though: Although Americans bought products containing more than a half-million pounds of microbeads, this represents a negligible amount of the plastic dumped in the ocean. 

What got me thinking of this was a recent trip to the Bahamas, where almost every beach, no matter how pristine it seemed from afar, upon closer inspection was choked with plastic. Here are a few examples: 

jg trash 1
James Greiff


jg trash 2
James Greiff

It wasn't just a freak weather pattern that was to blame. The scale of plastic pollution is mind-boggling. One study in Science magazine last year estimated that between 10.5 billion and 28 billion pounds of plastic is dumped into the world's oceans each year.

Where does all of that trash come from? Naturally, China is the top offender, followed by developing nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines.

plastics chart

And worse is likely yet to come, the authors of the study concluded.

We will not reach a global “peak waste” before 2100. Our waste will continue to grow with increased population and increased per capita consumption associated with economic growth, especially in urban areas and developing African countries…. Improving waste management infrastructure in developing countries is paramount and will require substantial resources and time. While such infrastructure is being developed, industrialized countries can take immediate action by reducing waste and curbing the growth of single-use plastics.

Not exactly reassuring.

Although scientists are making headway estimating how much plastic goes into the seas, they are having trouble figuring out why so much of it seems to disappear once it gets swept into powerful ocean currents. Much of the trash ends up in what are sometimes called the five gyres, vast areas in the oceans where plastic spins around and breaks up into smaller and smaller particles.

Scientists can only speculate about why the plastic seems to vanish. Maybe the refuse, which is made of petroleum-based chemicals, degrades faster in a marine environment than expected. Or perhaps currents pull much of it deep into the ocean where it can't be measured. Or it gets washed ashore or breaks down into particles too small for scientists to measure. Or worst of all, tiny particles are consumed by marine life and, like the microbeads, work their way into the food chain.

So, yes, we should be grateful for the microbead ban at least. Consumers don't even have to forgo their exfoliating scrubs. (From what I read, crushed walnut shells make a pretty good substitute.) But as a step toward getting plastics out of the water, it's a minuscule beginning. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.