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Why The Microbead Ban Won't Stop Tiny Plastic Pollution

An assortment of microplastics
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency

One year after the United States banned microbeads - the small plastic particles you might see in a face scrub - scientists are now turning their attention to microfibers - hairlike plastics in our clothing.

Both types of plastic have been cluttering up oceans, rivers, and lakes. But clothing and personal care products aren’t the biggest sources of microplastics. Scientists are having a hard time finding out what these microplastics are and where they come from. 

In this figure, USGS compared the abundance of different types of microplastics in the Great Lakes (left) to streams leading into the Great Lakes (right). As you can see, fibers clearly take the lead in Great Lakes tributaries. Though the makeup of the Gr
Credit U.S. Geological Survey

Not All Microbeads are Included in the Ban

In September, the U.S. Geological Survey released a study on microplastics in streams leading into the Great Lakes. They found a lot of microbeads, but they weren’t the type you find in personal care products.

They looked more like the plastic pellets industrial companies use. Plastics melted down to make more plastics - or the kind used to sandblast metal. In case you were wondering: No, the ban on microbeads did not include industrial pellets.

The Five Types of Microplastics

Whether they’re in your face scrub or in industrial work, microbeads are just one type of microplastic - and they aren’t even the biggest, baddest type in our waterways.

Scientists break microplastics into fragments, films, fibers, pellets, foams:

  • Fragments - hard, often angular pieces of plastic that broke off of larger plastic objects. (Ex. A tiny shard off of a plastic water bottle).
  • Films - pieces of things like food wrappers and plastic bags
  • Fibers - hairlike plastics from clothing and other plastic-derived materials
  • Pellets - also known as microbeads
  • Foams - pieces from things like styrofoam as well as disgarded cigarettes

These categories are only so helpful. In many ways they serve about the same function as that shape-sorting toy parents give to their two year olds. We might be able to group plastics by shape, size, or even color - but we don’t always know what it is or where it came from.
Sherri Mason researches microplastics at the State University of New York at Fredonia:

“You know we’ve pulled out plastic bags that still have writing on them. And so there are these instances where you can definitely identify a source, but generally speaking imagine a piece of a plastic bag floating in the lake. You have no idea if that plastic bag came from Walmart, Kmart, or your local grocery store. There’s just no way to do that.”

Why These Tiny Plastics Are Hard To Study

Don’t forget, these are microplastics - microscopic plastics. It’s hard to study something so small. Mason says right now there’s no machine that can help sort them. Every piece of plastic is hand-sorted by researchers in the lab.

“When I go and give talks, I’m not the best ambassador for recruiting students into my own program cause I’m like, ‘We spend hours and hours counting all of these little fibers. Who wants to come work for me?!’” says Mason.

How Microbeads in Personal Care Products got Attention

If we know that microbeads aren’t the most abundant type of microplastic in our waterways, why focus on them?

“I think the reason that the microbead story took off so much is because it was one that we were able to identify the source of the microplastics or at least provide sufficient evidence to support the idea,” says Sherri Mason.

Mason says when scientists compared the beads in the Great Lakes to the beads in personal care products - they looked almost identical. So it wasn’t that scientists were finding more microbeads than any other type of microplastic - it was just one of the first sources of microplastics they could name.

Mason says it’s the same thing with the microfibers in our synthetic clothing today:

“We have laboratory studies showing that if you wash your clothes they’re going to come out in the wash - these fibers are going to break off and they’re going to go down the drain. We have our wastewater treatment plant study and a couple others that have come out establishing that these fibers make their way through wastewater treatment plants. And so we have the evidence there.”  

Mason says she and other researchers are working as fast as they can to understand microplastics and stop them from polluting the environment. But she says it will take a long time for scientists to find all of the sources of microplastics in our oceans and rivers.

So lawmakers and manufacturers need to act on the sources we do know - like the plastics in our sweaters and gym shorts.

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