The culprit? Major personal care companies are using little plastic beads instead of more traditional and natural exfoliating agents, such as crushed-up nutshells, to gently scour away dead skin cells on consumers' faces.
And once washed down the drain, these micro-bits of pollution find their way into waterways, as evidenced by the recent (shocking) reports of plastic beads in the Great Lakes. One 4.2-ounce tube of a leading facial cleanser was found to contain 356,000 plastic microbeads. Scientists investigating plastic waste in the Great Lakes recently discovered as many as 450,000 tiny plastic beads per square kilometer, a record-shattering figure.
This discovery suggests sewage-treatment plants aren't adequately equipped to remove the plastic waste.
"Since launching our corporate and public-awareness campaign, the overwhelming reaction from our community is shock and anger. People simply don't like washing their face with plastic, and the fact that it's designed to go straight into the environment makes micro-beads a particularly egregious source of plastic pollution," says Stive Wilson, policy director of The 5 Gyres Institute, an action-oriented research agency that studies plastic pollution around the world. "These beads are similar in size to fish eggs and can absorb and concentrate toxins found in the aquatic environment, making them an ecosystem-wide threat to the food chain. This can ultimately threaten human health."
Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, L'Oreal, The Body Shop, and other leading brands agreed to phase out the use of the tiny plastic particles after data from 5 Gyres initially surfaced. Still, 5 Gyres isn't stopping there. The organization is now focused on creating model legislation that would bar companies from using microplastics in products that will be washed down the drain.
"These beads are similar in size to fish eggs and can absorb and concentrate toxins found in the aquatic environment, making them an ecosystem-wide threat to the food chain," Wilson adds. "This can ultimately threaten human health."
5 Gyres' research, done in part with SUNY Fredonia, was published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin and found the highest concentrations of microplastics in Lake Erie, where the tiny beads accounted for 90 percent of the lake's plastic pollution. Researchers also detected bits of coal ash, a nasty side effect of burning coal for energy.
The good news is you have some control in stopping this microplastic madness. 5 Gyres teamed up with The Plastic Soup Foundation and Stichting De Noordzee of the Netherlands to create BeattheMicroBead.org. The international campaign against microbeads in cosmetics also created an iPhone app that allows consumers to scan barcodes to find out if a product is one that personal care companies have added plastic microbeads to.
For more inspiration on giving plastic the boot, read 7 Freaky Reasons to Ditch Plastic.