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June 29, 2014

YOUR GREEN VALLEY: Microbeads found in personal care products damaging to waters

For the past six years Julie Manson has been working to get plastics and chemicals out of her home. She also tries to cook as many from-scratch meals as possible with local food from the Terre Haute Farmers Market and a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) she participates in. During a visit to the Farmers Market last year, her daughter, Madeleine, told her mother she wanted to be like the vendors she saw there and sell something. Julie then went to work trying to find a niche for the two of them to enjoy together.

“Madeleine had chapped lips all winter last year. It got so bad I thought it was going to be an issue at school so we went to the dermatologist. They gave her three different prescriptions. When I looked at the ingredients in the prescription, I said ‘these have to go back.’ I was not going to put that on her mouth. This is when we started thinking we could make our own chap stick and lip gloss, which eventually led us into soaps,” Julie said.

Today, the mother-daughter duo has a full line of natural skin-care products.

Plastic pollution in our waterways

Plastic is everywhere. To think, a generation ago we packaged our products in reusable or recyclable materials such as glass, metal and paper. Today, our landfills and beaches are awash in plastic packaging and expendable products that have no value at the end of their short life cycle. In recent years, plastic has even found its way into your shaving cream, toothpaste, facial cleanser and hand soap. Inside many of these products are thousands of tiny microbeads. Multiply that number by the use per day and people in your household. The math shows billions of these beads floating around in our fresh-water system.

The nonprofit organization 5Gyres focuses on plastic pollution in the marine environment. In 2012 they started looking at the problem in regards to inland bodies of water. In partnership with SUNY (State University of New York) they conducted research in the Great Lakes. “By surprise, we found more plastic by count in several samples from Lake Erie than we have in all the ocean research we have done to date,” said Anna Cummins, executive director, The 5 Gyres Institute.

Unlike the oceans where they find land-mass size collections of plastic containers, what they were finding were colored microscopic-sized beads which matched the kind of beads found in personal care products. They published their findings and took their scientific research to the big producers, Proctor and Gamble, Johnson and Johnson and Loreal.

“Within a pretty quick period of time, these companies did agree to a voluntary phase-out with the latest date being in 2017,” Cummins said.

Illinois steps forward

Soon after, 5Gyres contracted with an attorney and introduced a bill in New York, and California quickly followed. Illinois became the first state in the nation to sign legislation to ban the manufacture and sale of personal care products containing synthetic plastic microbeads. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said, “Banning microbeads will help ensure clean waters across Illinois and set an example for our nation to follow.” The new law will require synthetic microbeads to be removed from manufacturing by the end of 2018 and bans the sale of such items by the end of 2019 in Illinois.

‘Think Dirty’

5Gyres would like for people to start taking action before legislation goes into effect. They are asking for consumers to start reading labels and avoid products with microbeads. Doing so is harder than you think when such products contain anywhere from 20 to 30 ingredients with names you would need a degree in chemistry to decipher.

The Think Dirty app was born out of a personal journey to understand the truths in the beauty industry. Founder and CEO Lily Tse started when she decided to research causes behind breast cancer, including “toxic” ingredients in cosmetic and personal care products. Products are rated on a scale from “Clean to Dirty.”

“There are hormone disruptor chemicals in many products that have been possibly linked to breast cancer. I was shocked the cosmetics industry was not regulated like the food and drug sectors. And like most women, my lip gloss and shampoo are products I would never think to describe as ‘toxic’ or [products that] could contain cancer-causing chemicals,” Tse said.

Finding safer alternatives for herself was a huge challenge. Although many products are labeled “all-natural” or “organic,” there is little transparency in labeling cosmetics. She points to the confusing example of the ingredient grapefruit seed extract. While the name sounds natural, Tse says if it is made commercially there are contamination concerns where the end product is not as pure.

“As a single consumer you might think we have very limited power, but if we use the app as an educational tool, the consumer can become empowered. Collectively we can make a very powerful statement and choice by telling companies what we like and don’t like,” Tse said.

Because of limited startup funds, the Think Dirty app is currently only available on the iPhone.

Back to basics

Pure Grace Soap finds ways to add exfoliation into its products without using plastic microbeads. It makes sugar scrubs and a Gardener soap with cornmeal in it.

“You still get the scrubbing action a microbead might do for you, but we are not sending anything down the drain that will not go back to nature. Even if it does go down the drain and into the freshwater system, it will not hurt the fish. It will eventually compost down. It will not be there forever like plastic microbeads,” Manson said.  

Microbeads are too small for wastewater treatment plants to filter out. Sometimes what gets filtered is used as an agricultural sludge, which can finally give the microbeads a plan of escape into the system through ground water, the same ground water many of us get our well water from.

Jane Santucci is an environmental freelance writer for the Tribune-Star. Santucci is a proud volunteer with TREES Inc. and sits on the Wabash Valley Goodwill Industries Board of Directors. Share your environmental stories and tips with her at JaneSantucci@yourgreenvalley.com.

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