Microbeads: The Cleansing Contaminants (By U. Khan)

If you look through the personal care products around your house, you will likely find a product that contains microbeads. Microbeads are plastic particles that are 0.1nm-5mm in size. They are used as an abrasive in personal care products like facial scrubs, cosmetics, and toothpaste. Microbeads are commonly made from polyethylene, a plastic material and are terrible for the environment. They are too small to be detected by water filtration system and commonly end up in lakes and rivers. Once in the water, microbeads are ingested by fish and other aquatic species. The danger to the environment is not from the microbeads itself but from the fact that microbeads accumulate toxic chemicals as they move through the water. These chemicals can then make their way into the food chain and harm humans and animals.

The federal government has long proposed a ban on microbeads. The first attempt to ban them was started by John McKay when he introduced bill C-680 that would prohibit the sale of microbeads smaller than 5 mm. Another bill C-684 also proposed to have microbeads listed as a toxic substance under the Canada Environment Protection Act and prohibit their sale and importation. Unfortunately the bills could not proceed before the dissolution of the parliament for the 2015 elections. The current government has also expressed its interest in banning the use of microbeads in cosmetic products. This plan is currently in the public consultation phase, and the government was accepting public opinion on the ban until March 10th this year. The current government proposal is to ban the manufacturing and import of microbead containing products by 2017, and ban the sale of these products by 2018. A survey done by the Canadian Cosmetics, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association of Canada (CCTFA) found that currently members of the association use between 30kg/year to 68,000 kg/year of microbeads in their products.

Canada is behind our neighbour on the issue of plastic microbeads. The United States already created a law last year that prohibits the manufacturing of products containing microbeads from July 1st, 2017, with the aim of phasing them out in the next 2 years. Although some might argue that the microbeads have a useful purpose and the government has no right to ban them outright. I think that there are other alternatives to microbeads that can be used as an abrasive material in cleansing products. This article by the Huffington post explores some of these alternatives, which include biodegradable as well as rice-based cleansers. The negative impact of these microbeads on both marine and human health is immense as found by various research studies. Therefore, the government should go forward with the ban as it is the best plan forward for the environment.

What can we all do to help solve this problem?

The biggest impact we can all have on this issue is to not buy products that contain these microbeads. Consumers have a lot of power and if we collectively decide to not buy these products, businesses will have to listen and stop creating them. Loblaws has already stated that they will stop making products that contain microbeads by 2018. We can also try to look for innovative solutions for cleaning up the bodies of water that already have a large quantity of microbeads. Students at one Mississauga high school recently created a new filtration system for microbeads. The students won the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Award for $ 50,000 to develop the idea and create the filtration system. The system works by making water containing microbeads flow through a charged tube and having the negatively charged microbeads attach to a positively charged plate that can be removed from the water. This shows that there is something we can all do to help keep our lakes and rivers free of microbeads.

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