Researchers Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins were taking water samples from Lakes Erie, Huron, and Superior in 2012 when they noticed something puzzling—millions of plastic beads, each one smaller than a grain of sand.
The California couple had spent years researching the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and studying plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. They were finding much of the same debris in the Great Lakes—bottles, bags, straws, caps, and countless other single-use plastics—but they were stymied by the vast amount of mysterious plastic beads in every trawl.
After some research, Eriksen says, they realized the spherical particles were “the same size, shape, texture, and color of the microbeads you find in consumer beauty products”—facial scrubs, cleansers, and other common products that leave our skin clean but also send millions of plastic particles down the drain.
The beads are so tiny that most pass right through our sewer systems and into rivers, lakes, and oceans, where they accumulate—a single tube of Johnson & Johnson’s Clean & Clear facial scrub can contain up to 330,000 plastic beads.
“I found more in the Great Lakes than in any sample anywhere in the world’s oceans,” says Eriksen, co-founder with Cummins of the 5 Gyres Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to documenting plastic pollution in the world’s five major oceanic gyres (huge swirling currents in which debris accumulates in the North and South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean—the North Pacific gyre has amassed a “garbage patch” as big as the state of Texas).
Microbeads may be tiny, but they pose a big environmental problem, says Eriksen. The plastic particles can leach harmful chemicals into the water. At the same time, they can absorb toxic pollutants like PCBs, heavy metals, and oil—and when the contaminated beads are swallowed by fish and other marine creatures, they can introduce those chemicals into our food supply.
But the tide may be turning on microbeads. Eriksen and Cummins led an effort by 5 Gyres to persuade cosmetics companies to discontinue the use of these plastic particles. So far, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal, Unilever, and Colgate-Palmolive have agreed to phase them out by 2015, while Proctor & Gamble has said it will remove them from products by 2017.
“They saw the writing on the wall,” Eriksen says. “Instead of fighting it with all of the ammunition that corporations can throw at these types of campaigns and small nonprofits, I guess they took the moral high road and said, ‘You’re right.’