Microbead Mess

By Robert Kearns
Class of 2015

When consumers hit the stores for personal hygiene products, they may think that they are making a good choice for their health. However, hidden in many different soaps, facial scrubs and toothpaste are tiny pieces of plastic. Microplastics are plastic particles defined by the United Nations (UN) as being less than 5mm in diameter. These plastics easily pass through waste water treatment facilities and pass straight into major bodies of water, most notably oceans. Once the fragments of plastic reach the ocean they can travel in ocean currents, spreading to areas around the globe. According to a United Nations Environmental Program study, plastic pollution causes $13 billion dollars in damages annually to the environment. These plastics are ingested by countless marine life including zoo plankton, worms, mussels, fish, seabirds and whales who mistaken it for food.

These plastics also can be modes of transport for different invasive species including communities of microbes, pathogens and algae called “plastispheres” by the UN.

Tourism is one of the largest industries in Massachusetts. According to a study by the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, tourism amounted to $29.3 billion dollars in spending, supporting 208,500 jobs in 2013 alone. People come to our state to visit our wonderful coastline and beaches and eat our excellent fish and shellfish. We cannot risk this essential part of our economy by using microplastics.
These microbeads have been banned in Illinois, where the microbeads were being released into the Great Lakes.

Not only are these plastics a risk to nature, they are a risk to humans. There is a risk of consumption of microplastics in shellfish, studies have shown that microplastics have been found inside of mussel species. Not only are people at risk of secondary exposure from consuming contaminated food, people are at risk of accidentally consuming microplastics from toothpastes and facial soaps.

Should we allow companies to put plastics in toothpaste? Seriously? Illinois legislature worked with the cosmetic industry to draft the legislation, allowing industry to use natural substitutes such as sea salt and ground up fruit pits that have the same exfoliating benefits. Here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Senator Karen E. Spilka filed SD1056 An Act to ensure microbead-free water, and is being debated on the floor up on Beacon Hill.

Vigilance is necessary in when buying products that we use on a daily basis. With plastics accumulating in our oceans we must question the establishment. What are our products made of? How do we dispose of them? The fight does not end with plastic microbeads. We must carry the torch, lighting the way to a future of sustainability. It is through our cooperation in which we can protect the planet for ourselves and our posterity.

Robert Kearns is a student in Advanced Placement Language and Composition