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Let’s Focus On Real Solutions to Marine Litter

By Dr. Beth Lange, Chief Scientist at the Personal Care Products Council

We can all agree on a desire for clean water and safe and healthy marine environments. These are especially important to me as a scientist and an avid outdoor enthusiast. But the contribution of microbeads to the islands of plastic that are polluting our oceans continues to get overblown and scientific evidence ignored.

The complete science-based view of this significant issue is that plastic microbeads make up a miniscule amount of all microplastic marine litter – as little as 0.1 percent to 1.5 percent, according to quantitative research by independent academics, NGOs and governments from around the world.

Regardless of what alarmists want you to believe, your face wash and toothpaste are not endangering the environment or you. What we need is a focus on real solutions by tackling the true primary sources of plastic debris in our waterways.

The largest source of microbeads by far is industrial beads used in manufacturing. But these beads are not being banned and are unfortunately not the focus of efforts to clean up our marine environments.

A federal law – passed with bipartisan and industry support – bans plastic microbeads in exfoliating products as of next summer. My industry listened to concerns and acted early with a voluntary phase-out, even before the law was passed. But critics argue that we can’t afford to wait for the ban. They insist microbeads pose a real and imminent threat to marine life and to humans via the food chain.

Again, modern science tells us this is untrue.

A recent state-of-the-science review published in the highly esteemed journal Environmental Science and Technology concluded that microplastics do not increase exposure of wildlife to harmful pollutants and do not cause toxins to build up in the food chain. It also found that lab experiments fail to simulate what actually occurs in the environment because they overexpose marine animals to unrealistic amounts of microplastics.

One of the authors of that review, Dr. Allen Burton, recently wrote in the Detroit News that freshwater fish are not eating microbeads. He said that there are very few microbeads in the water where fish feed. Also, he states that most fish are attracted to movement, and microbeads do not move in the water.

Further, we are not drinking microbeads in our tap water. Independent studies by water-treatment experts have shown water treatment plants to be effective at removing microbeads and other tiny plastic particles before they enter either our waterways or drinking water supplies. One such study published in the journal Water Research showed up to 99 percent removal of microplastic; another found a removal rate of 90 percent.

Studies consistently find that, by far, the largest source of plastic litter in water is from discarded packaging and disposables, such as bags and bottles, while they are intact and also when they break down over time into tiny plastic pieces — microplastics.

Microbeads are microplastics, but not all microplastics are microbeads. The major sources of microplastic marine litter are textile fibers, tire dust washed from roadways and again, the breakdown of plastic packaging such as bags and bottles.

The decision to phase out plastic microbeads was a responsible approach to growing consumer concerns. It was not driven by science. Finding real solutions to all marine litter, which is the goal of all of us who care deeply about our environment, will take more research and a focus on the true, primary sources.

Dr. Beth Lange is Chief Scientist at the Personal Care Products Council in Washington, D.C.

Voices editor’s note: This post was submitted in response to Pesky plastic: The true harm of microplastics in the oceans, published on Voices on April 4, 2016.