Microbeads are manufactured solid plastic particles of less than five millimeters in their largest dimension, and commercially available in particle sizes from 10 micrometres (0.00039 in) to 1 millimetre (0.039 in). Low melting temperature and fast phase transitions make them especially suitable for creating porous structures in ceramics and other materials. They are most frequently made of polyethylene or other petrochemical plastics such as polypropylene and polystyrene.
Microbeads are added as an exfoliating agent to cosmetics and personal care products, such as soap, facial scrub and toothpastes. They may be added to over-the-counter drugs. In biomedical and health science research microbeads are used in microscopy techniques, fluid visualization, fluid flow analysis, and process troubleshooting.
Sphericity and particle size uniformity create a ball-bearing effect in creams and lotions, resulting in a silky texture and spreadability. Smoothness and roundness can provide lubrication. Colored microspheres add visual appeal to cosmetic products.
Microbeads are washed down the drain, can pass unfiltered through the sewage treatment plants and make their way into rivers and canals, resulting in plastic particle water pollution. A team of researchers from Uppsala University found out one of the various animals affected by microbeads was perch, a freshwater fish. When born into polluted environments containing high quantities of polystyrene particles they chose to eat these microbeads instead of real food like zooplankton. Plastic-eating perch demonstrated negative behavioral effects; for example, they ignored the smell of predators which left them vulnerable. The beads can absorb and concentrate pollutants like pesticides and polycyclic hydrocarbons. Microbeads have been found to pollute the Great Lakes in high concentrations, particularly Lake Erie. A study from the State University of New York, found anywhere from 1,500 to 1.1 million microbeads per square mile on the surface of the Great Lakes.
One study suggested that environmentally relevant levels of polyethylene microbeads had no impact on larva. Some wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) in the U.S. and Europe can remove microbeads with an efficiency of greater than 98 percent, others may not. As such, other sources of microplastic pollution (e.g. fibers and car tires) are more likely to be associated with environmental hazards.
A variety of wildlife, from small fish, amphibians and turtles to birds and larger mammals, mistake microbeads for their food source. This ingestion of plastics introduces the potential for toxicity not only to these animals but to other species higher in the food chain. Harmful chemicals thus transferred can include hydrophobic pollutants that collect on the surface of the water such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), DDT, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
In 2012, the North Sea Foundation and the Plastic Soup Foundation launched an app that allows Dutch consumers to check whether personal care products contain microbeads. In the summer of 2013, the United Nations Environment Programme and UK based NGO Fauna and Flora International joined the partnership to further develop the app for international audiences. The app has enjoyed success, convincing a number of large multinationals to stop using microbeads, and is available in seven languages. There are many natural and biodegradable alternatives to microbeads that have no environmental impact when washed down the drain, as they will either decompose or get filtered out before being released into the natural environment. Some examples to use as natural exfoliates include ground up almonds, oatmeal, seasalt and coconut husks. Burt’s Bees and St. Ives use apricot pits and cocoa husks in their products instead of microbeads to reduce their negative environmental impact.
Due to the increase in bans of microbeads in the USA, many cosmetic companies are also phasing out microbeads from their production lines. L’Oreal is planning to phase out polyethylene microbeads in the exfoliates, cleansers and shower gels from their products by 2017. Johnson and Johnson, who have already started to phase out microbeads at the end of 2015, will by 2017 not be producing any polyethylene microbeads in their products. Lastly, Crest is completely phasing out microbeads from their toothpastes by February 2016.
On May 18, 2015, Canada took its first steps toward banning microbeads when a Member of Parliament from Toronto, John McKay, introduced Bill C-680, which would ban the sale of microbeads. According to Environment and Climate Change Canada the government of Canada will be suggesting that microbeads be added to the list of toxic substances in the Canadian Environmental Protection Agency (CEPA), 1999.
The first Canadian province to take action against microbeads is Ontario, where Maire-France Lalonde, a Member of the Provincial Parliament introduced Microbead Elimination and Monitoring Act. This bill would enforce the ban of manufacturing microbeads in cosmetics, facial scrubs or washes, and similar products. The bill also proposes that there will be yearly samples taken from the Canadian Great Lakes, which will be analyzed for traces of microbeads.
Pointe-Claire mayor, Morris Trudeau and members of the City Council requested its residents to sign a petition asking governments of Canada and Quebec to ban “the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetic and cleansing products.” Trudeau suggested that if Quebec bans microbeads, manufactures will be encouraged to stop producing them in their products.
Megan Leslie, Halifax Member of Parliament presented a motion against microbeads in the House of Commons, which got “unanimous support” and is hoping for them to be listed under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act as a toxin.
As of June 29, 2016, the Federal Government of Canada added microbeads in the Canadian Environmental Protection Act under Schedule 1 as a toxic substance.
On 23 November 2016, Minister Simon Coveney T.D. Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government (the Minister with policy responsibility for marine environmental protection) informed the Seanad, the upper house of the Irish legislature, that he intends to notify the EU Commission of Ireland's intention to introduce legislation to ban microbeads in certain personal care products, detergents and scouring agents in 2017. This is due to the potential harm they may present to riverine, estuarine and marine environments. It is his intention to enact and commence this legislation in 2017. On 25 of November 2016, he wrote to EU Commissioner Karmenu Vella to advise him that Ireland will be formally notifying the EU of its intention to ban sale or manufacture of certain products containing microbeads. Ireland will continue to advocate for a ban throughout the EU.
The UK government is to introduce a ban of microbeads from all cosmetics by the end of 2017. They will be banned from sale in the UK from the end of 2017.
At the federal level, the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 prohibits the manufacture and introduction into interstate commerce of rinse-off cosmetics containing intentionally-added plastic microbeads by July 1, 2017. Representative Frank Pallone proposed the bill in 2014 (H.R. 4895, reintroduced in 2015 as H.R. 1321). On December 7, 2015, his proposal was narrowed by amendment to rinse-off cosmetics, and passed unanimously by the House. The American Chemistry Council and other industry groups supported the final bill, which the Senate passed on December 18, 2015, and the president signed on December 28, 2015.
Illinois became the first U.S. state to enact legislation banning the manufacture and sale of products containing microbeads; the two-part ban goes into effect in 2018 and 2019. The Personal Care Products Council, a trade group for the cosmetics industry, came out in support of the Illinois bill. Other states have followed.
As of October 2015 all state bans except California's ban, allow biodegradable microbeads. Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble opposed the California law.
In 2014, legislation was voted on but failed to pass in New York.
In 2015, Erie County, New York passed the first local ban in the state of New York. It bans the sale and distribution of all plastic microbeads (including biodegradable ones) including from personal care products. As of September 2015, its prohibition on sales is stronger than any other law in the country. It was enacted on August 12, 2015 and should take effect in February, 2016. This appears to be the first ban to go into effect in the country. In November 2015 four other NY counties followed suit.
The Netherlands was the first country to announce its intent to be free of microbeads in cosmetics by the end of 2016. State Secretary for Infrastructure and the Environment Mansveld has said she is pleased with the progress made by the members of the Nederlandse Cosmetica Vereniging (NCV), the Dutch trade organisation for producers and importers of cosmetics, who have ceased using microbeads or are working towards removing microbeads from their product. By 2017 80% of them should have completed the transition to a microbead-free product line. Among the NCV's members are large multinationals such as Unilever, L'Oréal, Colgate-Palmolive, Henkel, and Johnson & Johnson.