By Leah Devorak | Layout Editor
Getting clean has never been so dirty.
President Barack Obama signed a law last week that will officially ban microbeads – some of the most common yet most dangerous pollutants – from use in the United States. Starting in 2017, all companies must cease production of the tiny plastics, with a goal of total elimination everywhere by 2018.
The ban may seem insignificant now, but given the constantly worsening state of nature in the U.S., it’s vital that it happened. It has the potential to reverse decades of crippling damage and bring back the harmony that once existed in the country’s various ecosystems.
Microbeads, as defined by the government, can be up to 5 millimeters in diameter. However, they are often manufactured at only a fraction of a millimeter in order to easily wash down household drains.
This leads to a buildup in the environment, for such a size is too small to be caught by water treatment filters and prevented from entering waterways.
The 5 Gyres Institute estimates that about 300,000 microbeads, or 21 grams, can be found in a mere 200 milliliters (just under one cup) of microbead-infused product. A September study from Environmental Science & Technology reports that this adds up to as many as 8 trillion microbeads entering the U.S. water system per day, enough to coat the surface of three tennis courts.
Remember, the average microbead isn’t even one millimeter in size.
From a slightly different perspective, the Wildlife Conservation Society estimates that in New York alone, 19 tons of microbeads are washed down the drain each and every year. That’s 38,000 pounds of an object so small, one can’t even feel its weight.
Such a high volume of pollution is obviously bad for the environment, but the size of the beads makes them much more dangerous and in much more need of cleaning up than other larger pollutants out there.
Due to their tininess, aquatic animals often mistake the beads for food, such as fish eggs or phytoplankton. This makes the pollutants even more dangerous because animals have almost no chance of avoiding them. Once seen, instinct kicks in, and the beads are ingested.
This creates the problem of biomagnification, the carrying of toxins consumed by low-level organisms up the food chain to high-level predators. As the toxin moves up the chain, it becomes so concentrated that top predators are quickly poisoned and just start dropping dead.
There’s also concern for the low-level creatures that directly consume the microbeads, too. Because they are plastic and cannot be digested, they are also dropping dead from their stomachs filling with plastic rather than food, another huge disruption in the ecosystem.
Imagine how many more species would be on the endangered list if this were allowed to continue.
So it’s safe to say that the ban was something extremely necessary. The only questions remaining are whether or not it will actually work, as well as whether or not it’s even feasible.
Thanks to the simple fact that water flows, it’s definitely a sure thing that the ban will work. Once microbead products disappear, waterways will naturally flush themselves out, hopefully sending the plastics to some far, uninhabited place.
Feasibility also looks pretty promising. Because the ban will happen gradually over the next two years, there’s plenty of time for companies to reformulate while not losing any business to their already microbead-less competitors.
And it becomes even easier of a switch to make thanks to how inexpensive natural alternatives are. Based on the 2014 cost of plastic as reported by The Economist, just over $2 worth of plastic can be found within every 200mL bottle of microbead-infused product out there.
However, a natural alternative such as salt drops that price to as low as $.001 per 200 mL, if the lowest-quality form available is used. Even the highest quality of salt barely rivals plastic prices, coming in at a whopping $2.08 per 200 mL bottle. Feasibility is definitely a yes.
So while this sudden ban may seem a little out-of-the-blue given the rest of the problems in today’s world, below the surface, it actually makes perfect sense.