What are microbeads and why is Canada banning them?

Canada is the latest in a growing list to ban the tiny plastic orbs that researchers say threaten marine ecosystems and the food chain.

A right whale's tale seen in Puerto Piramide, Patagonia, Argentina in this file photo taken Sep 18, 2006. The UN cited threats to the endangered right whale in its report on plastics pollution.

Canada is the latest government to defend itself against a teeny, tiny threat. In recent years, researchers have called out microbeads – 1mm to 5mm orbs of plastic often found in exfoliating cleansers and grittier toothpastes – for perpetrating nearly invisible harm to marine life and their ecosystems.

A review that included an analysis of over 130 scientific papers as well as consultations with experts by the Canadian government revealed that the presence of microbeads in the environment may have long-term effects on biological diversity and ecosystems. Minister of Labour K. Kellie Leitch announced at a press conference along the shore of Lake Ontario last week that the government would declare microbeads to be a toxic substance and prohibit the manufacture, import, and sale of “personal-care” products that contain them.

“Microbeads can have an adverse impact on the environment so I am proud that our government is taking decisive action to stop the release of this toxic substance into our waters,” Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of the Environment, said in a statement.

Microplastics get flushed down drains each year by the ton, and pass easily through water treatment facilities undetected, ultimately ending up in oceans and lakes. Because they are not biodegradable and are highly absorbent, researchers have found the microplastics to be harmful to fish and algae.

Last year, the UN Environmental Assembly estimated that the damage caused by microplastics to marine ecosystems costs around $13 billion annually, and called microbeads “an emerging issue”, emphasizing the threat they pose to the food chain. The miniscule plastic beads are absorbed by algae, which in turn is consumed by fish, who also have been found to confuse the beads for food, and, in turn, develop diseases as a result. Microplastics have also been identified as a threat to larger marine life like the endangered northern right whale, according to the UN report, which is potentially exposed to plastic through filter-feeding.

Makers of toothpaste and facial scrubs have begun to respond to the growing backlash. Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive have stopped using microbeads; Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson say they will follow in 2017. Loblaws, Canada’s largest retailer, plans to remove them from its house brand. But these companies are also urging their governments to ban the use of microbeads by all manufacturers, according to The Economist.

Six states — Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, Colorado, Indiana, and Maryland — have enacted legislation to restrict the use of microbeads, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, while bills are pending in others, including Michigan, Minnesota, Washington and Oregon, The New York Times reports.

Four European countries, led by the Netherlands, are pressing the EU to prohibit their use in cosmetics, and Australia’s environment minister acted on organizing a voluntary phase out of microbeads by Australian manufacturers by 2016.

New York state’s attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, estimates that roughly 19 tons of microbeads get flushed into New York’s wastewater each year, according to a report titled “Hidden Threat”. The State Assembly approved a proposal from Mr. Schneiderman’s office to ban microbeads, but the bill is stalled in the State Senate. Similarly, in California, a state-wide ban is headed for the State Senate after being approved by the State Assembly in May; that law stands to be the most comprehensive in the country because it also prohibits the use of synthetic alternatives, which companies are developing in response to increasing regulation.

Go here to see a complete list of products, organized by country, that contain microbeads.

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