Michigan Legislature debates microbead solutions

Across region lawmakers explore options for addressing the Great Lakes’ tiniest trash problem.

Photo courtesy of Greg Wohlford | Erie Times-News.

Photo courtesy of Greg Wohlford | Erie Times-News.

When we think of a trash problem in the Great Lakes what most often comes to mind are things like plastic bags, old soda bottles, and discarded fishing line. However, in recent years, environmental scientists have grown increasingly concerned about a type of trash roughly the size of a grain of sand. Microbeads are tiny plastic spheres often used in soaps, toothpaste, makeup, and even shampoo. Microbeads wash down our sink and shower drains and are carried to waste water treatment plants that are most often not equipped to completely remove these tiny bits of plastic from our water supply. A 2012 research effort that sampled twenty-one sites across the Great Lakes found an average of 69,000 tiny plastic particles per square mile. Much of this miniature debris comes from larger pieces of plastic trash like bottles and bags broken down over time. However, a large portion was also made up of perfectly round plastic microbeads.

Microbeads may look small but over time as millions of them find their way into the Great Lakes they can have a big impact. Microbeads are easily mistaken for certain types of fish eggs and other prey that Great Lakes fish feed on. Once eaten, microbeads can cause significant damage to fish stomachs and digestive systems. Toxins like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the surrounding water will attached to plastic microbeads. These toxins remain in the fish after the microbeads are consumed. Toxins then accumulate up the food chain as smaller fish are eaten by larger fish, birds and eventually humans.

A variety of creative solutions have been employed to tackle the challenge of microbeads. Several major companies have already begun voluntarily phasing out microbeads from their personal hygiene products. To date nine states including Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland and New Jersey have passed laws to phase out microbeads or ban them entirely. Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would ban all cosmetics containing synthetic microbeads.

Some legislation seeking to ban or phase out microbeads has included exceptions for biodegradable microbeads. In many cases there is no clear legal definition of biodegradable and this has sparked a debate around the question of how quickly plastics must breakdown to be considered biodegradable. In Maryland the legislation addressing microbeads also requires the state Department of Environment to develop biodegradability guidelines based on current scientific research.

A number of bills addressing microbeads have been proposed in the Michigan House and Senate since 2013. The most recent bill would halt all manufacture and sale of products containing nonbiodegradable microbeads by 2018. Debate on the bill ended without a vote. Michigan lawmakers will continue to wrestle with how to best address this newest tiny Great Lake’s pollutant.  

Michigan Sea Grant and MSU Extension specialists have provided information on microbeads as an emerging Great Lakes pollutant at a number of regional events including the Annual Great Lakes Conference as part of Michigan State University’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Week. You can read more about microbeads and other microplastics in the Great Lakes at the MSU Extension website.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

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