Note: This publication was updated in April, 2015: Update: Water Pollution from Microplastic Beads in Consumer Products
Economics, Resources and International Affairs Division
Plastic has long been a known contaminant in the world’s oceans. Of particular concern are the smaller pieces of plastic – those less than 5 mm – that can cause harm to fish and other wildlife.
These so-called “microplastics” are generally the result of the degradation of larger pieces of plastic. However, some are deliberately manufactured “microbeads” used in consumer products, such as facial cleansers, shower gel and toothpaste.
In addition to their discovery in the oceans, plastic microbeads smaller than 2 mm have recently been found in high concentrations in Great Lakes waters, particularly downstream of major cities, and in the sediments of the St. Lawrence River.
Microplastics can be consumed by a variety of marine life, including fish harvested for human consumption. They can cause asphyxiation or a blockage of organs in marine animals. Chemical pollutants tend to accumulate and persist on microplastics, which could transfer these chemicals to animals ingesting the plastic.
Microbeads were first patented for use in cleansers in 1972. However, it was not until the 1990s that manufacturers started using them to replace more natural materials, such as ground almonds, oatmeal and sea salt. Since alternatives do exist, the plastic microbeads are not considered an essential ingredient in cosmetics and personal care products.
Wastewater treatment plants are currently unable to filter out microbeads because of their small size and buoyancy. Upgrading treatment plants would be costly, and there are no known ways to effectively remove microplastics after they make their way into the environment. So the simplest action is to prevent them from entering the environment.
Private and public sector response
Recognizing this, a global movement has arisen calling for a ban on the use of microbeads in cosmetic products. In June 2014, Illinois banned the production, manufacture, or sale of personal care products containing plastic microbeads. State legislatures in California, Minnesota, New York and Ohio have considered following suit.
Many of the world’s largest cosmetics producers have already made commitments to replace microbeads with natural alternatives, but there remain legislative options that could accelerate this process.
If the Canadian government decided to address the issue of microplastics in cosmetic products, one option would be to prohibit the deposit of microbeads in fish-bearing waters. This could be done either through a legislative amendment to the Fisheries Act or by naming microbeads as a “deleterious substance” in a regulation under the Act. Both of these approaches would put the onus on wastewater treatment facilities to remove microbeads from wastewater before it is released into fish-bearing waters.
Another option that would address microbeads at the source would involve amending the Cosmetic Regulations to restrict or prohibit the use of microbeads in cosmetics.
Desforge, Jean-Pierre, et al. “Widespread distribution of microplastics in subsurface seawater in the NE Pacific Ocean.” Marine Pollution Bulletin. Vol. 79, Nos. 1–2, 15 February 2014.
Isensee, Kirsten, and Luis Valdes. “Marine Litter: Microplastics.” GSDR [Global Sustainable Development Report] 2015 Brief. Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Mathalon, Alysse, and Paul Hill. “Microplastic fibers in the intertidal ecosystem surrounding Halifax Harbor, Nova Scotia.” Marine Pollution Bulletin. Vol. 81, No. 1, 15 April 2014.
Spée, Marion. “Du plastique au fond du Saint-Laurent!” Québec Science, December 2014.
State of New York Attorney General. Unseen Threat: How Microbeads Harm New York Waters, Wildlife, Health and Environment, 2014.
United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “States Consider Plastic Microbead Bans,” Marine Debris.